Understanding New Jersey's Domestic Violence Law
“Domestic violence” is a loaded concept. Psychologists, sociologists, jurists and experts from virtually every academic discipline have studied it and expounded on its origins, causes, and effects on victims and society writ-large. What does “domestic violence” mean in a New Jersey courtroom? The burden rests on the plaintiff-victim to establish a two-part case; all proofs must be made by the civil standard of a preponderance of the evidence (which means more likely true than not) as opposed to the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. A defendant (man or woman) is guilty of domestic violence when (1) both parties fit into a defined domestic relationship category, and (2) the defendant party commits a predicate criminal offense against the plaintiff. And what exactly is a defined domestic relationship? Essentially, the parties' relationship must be one of the following under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA) of 1991, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 et seq. ( click here to review it) before the Court will even consider whether an incident or incidents of domestic violence took place:
- Married but presently Separated
- Cohabitating (i.e. “living together”) in the same household
- Parents of a mutual child or children
For example, “platonic” (i.e. non-dating/non-romantic) friends, let's call them “Mr. A” and “Ms. B,” typically cannot obtain domestic violence restraining orders against each other even if one of them commits predicate criminal offense (see below). However, if our hypothetical friends live together as roommates or “have a dating like relationship, then either individual could qualify for the protections afforded by New Jersey's.
Many domestic violence cases turn on whether such a “dating relationship” exists between the parties. To borrow a popular Facebook dating phrase, the answer is often “complicated.” The definition of a “date” is broad and often, necessarily, subjective. As a result, the Family Judge is often called on to make a highly-factual determination and consider what the parties subjectively believe about the relationship among other factors. In one relatively recent case, J.S. v. J.F., A-2552-08, the Appellate Division found that a paid escort actually qualified as a “date” under the Act. Please also note that while gender is irrelevant, the defendant must be 18 or older (or an emancipated minor) for the Act to apply. Therefore, a 16 year old cannot be a domestic violence defendant in New Jersey. So okay – we've now established that Mr. A and Ms. B are in a dating like relationship with each other. And what is a predicate criminal defense? Once the relationship of the parties has been established proving the elements of one of the following fourteen (14) criminal offenses will trigger the protections of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA) of 1991:
- Terroristic threats
- Criminal restraint
- False imprisonment
- Sexual assault
- Criminal sexual contact
- Criminal mischief
- Criminal trespass
Harassment is the most common and most controversial underling offense. Harassment is also far-and-away the most complicated since because it typically does not involve any physical touching. “Harassment” in New Jersey is defined as follows:
[A] person commits a petty disorderly persons offense if, with purpose to harass another, he: a. Makes, or causes to be made, a communication or communications anonymously or at extremely inconvenient hours, or in offensively coarse language, or any other manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; b. Subjects another to striking, kicking, shoving, or other offensive touching, or threatens to do so; or c. Engages in any other course of alarming conduct or of repeatedly committed acts with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy such other person. Last August, the Appellate Division's reported decision of L.M.F. v. J.A.F., Jr. addressed the circumstances upon which digital communications, specifically cell phone text messages, could be considered harassment pursuant to the criteria set forth above. In that particular case, the text messages at issue were not sent with the requisite purpose to harass by the defendant. A more recent unreported decision, E.D. v. J.F., App. Div. 20-2-5897, saw a final restraining order upheld where a defendant texted the plaintiff “get her daughter … leave the house and get to a safe place” and, at the end of one text, included the word “bullets” which caused the plaintiff to fear for her safety. Domestic violence is a serious matters addressed by New Jersey family attorneys. This area of the law is also extremely complicated as the examples cited in this blog post clearly indicate. Both parties in a DV matter face potentially life-changing consequences hinging upon whether the Family Court ultimately issues a final restraining order. Consequently, it is extremely important for victims and defendants alike to seek out experienced counsel during this extremely difficult time in their lives. If you are a New Jersey victim of domestic violence, or if you have been accused of perpetrating domestic violence in New Jersey, contact the domestic violence attorneys at DeMichele & DeMichele online today or call (856) 546-1350 to speak with a friendly and helpful member of our legal staff. We will set up a confidential consultation with one of our experienced attorneys in order to accommodate your busy schedule!