TRENTON, N.J. — If one person in a sexual relationship has lied about his or her identity, it could result in a sexual assault charge under a measure being considered in the New Jersey Legislature.
The legislation that would expand the state's sexual assault law to include sex committed by fraud had its start in the experience of a Florence woman who was involved in a relationship with a man who claimed to work for the British government and later pleaded guilty to defrauding her.
Mischele Lewis is planning to write a book about the fraud perpetrated on her by a man claiming to be named Liam Allen.
Lewis began dating the man at the start of last year. But she discovered he wasn't who he said he was after looking in his wallet one day and discovering an ID showing his real name, William Allen Jordan.
"I was mortified and I felt shame," she said. "I thought, 'Oh my God. I'm a college-educated person and I fell for it.'"
Overall, she said she gave $5,000 to Jordan under false pretenses.
Lewis said she wants to make sure what happened to her doesn't happen to anyone else.
"I'm not a jilted woman or scorned woman who's out to get every man," she said. "I want to give women some power back after they feel violated."
Assemblyman Troy Singleton introduced the legislation after Lewis contacted him. Under the bill, violators would face 10 to 20 years in prison and up to a $200,000 fine or both for a conviction of first-degree sexual assault. A second-degree conviction would mean a 5- to 10-year prison term and up to a $150,000 fine.
"The biggest thing is that — in protecting victims from rape — we want to make sure prosecutors have every tool at their disposal," Singleton said.
The legislation was first reported on this week by NJ.com.
Five other states — Alabama, California, Colorado, Montana and Tennessee — have similar laws, according to an Office of Legislative Services review, he said.
"If conservative states can pass something like this then why can't a more forward-looking one do it?" Lewis asked.
Critics of the measure say it creates a gray area and would be difficult for courts to uphold.
"In criminal cases it really should be black and white," said defense attorney Greg Gianforcaro, who has reviewed the bill and questions whether it could stand up in court. "Is a prosecutor going to be able to prove that the sexual relations were solely based upon what the defendant in this case claimed to be (fraud)?"
Responding to that criticism, Singleton said there has been no evidence in the other states with similar measures to suggest the legislation has been hard to implement.
"For those who say it's a bit of gray area, I think the law allows prosecutors to use their best judgment," he said.
His legislation, he added, is just a starting point and that he is still taking input on how to improve it.
If the measure stalls in the Legislature, Lewis said she plans to continue to push for changes in the law.
"I would be devastated if it didn't pass. It would really be a blow because then I would have put in all this effort for nothing," she said. "But I will keep trying."