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New Unreported Decision Discusses Constitutional and Procedural Requirements of a Domestic Violence Complaint

This is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so DeMichele & DeMichele’s blogger-attorneys will be focusing on this very important issue, one which we deal with every day as part of our practice.

Understanding what qualifies as “domestic violence” is an important first step for anyone looking for the Court’s protection or, alternatively, someone who stands accused of committing domestic violence. Plenty is on the line. A victim faces a potential risk to their safety and well-being. The accused faces legal penalties and a stigma that could negatively affect present or future employment.

I wrote about this topic extensively back in April. To briefly summarize, a plaintiff alleging domestic violence must demonstrate to the Court (1) that the parties’ relationship is included under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA) of 1991, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 et seq, and, once the relationship of the parties has been established, (2) proving the elements of one of the fourteen (14) criminal offenses or “predicate acts” that can trigger the protections of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA) of 1991.

But what can the Court consider as a “predicate” act? In other words, can the judge look at other past events not alleged in domestic violent complaint to form his or her decision?

An October 4, 2012 unpublished (“unprecedential” or non-binding) decision, D.M. v. LR from the New Jersey Appellate Division, held “it was improper to base a finding of domestic violence upon a series of events alleged as ‘past history’ and not alleged in the complaint as a predicate act.”

Let’s look at the facts and understand what we can learn from it…

In D.M. v. LR, the parties had had a long, turbulant, off-again on-again relationship. The parties entered into a “consent agreement” on June 10, 2011, following the filing of a domestic violence complaint. The agreement obligated defendant to “have no direct or indirect interaction” with the plaintiff, his family and customers. The parties also agreed that “any outstanding issues with each other” would be addressed through the “court system.”

It didn’t take long for “outstanding issues” to arise.

The parties were back in court later that summer, both having filed domestic violence complaints against each other. The defendant’s complaint was ultimately dismissed; we will address the plaintiff’s complaint since it was the primary subject of the appeal. The plaintiff’s complaint against the defendant stemmed from a June 30, 2011 incident when, during a completely separate civil lawsuit proceeding between the parties, the plaintiff was allegedly “almost knocked . . . over” by the defendant outside of the courtroom.

The trial judge granted the plaintiff’s complaint, but interestingly, did so not on the grounds of the alleged physical confrontation. Rather, the judge believed that the defendant had violated the letter and spirit of the parties’ aforementioned agreement, stating that the defendant “has had a hard time letting go” and that defendant’s lawsuits were “off the mark in a way that suggests”  they were designed to “get at” plaintiff. The judge felt this evidenced a course of alarming conduct which made necessary the entry of a domestic violence final restraining order.

On appeal, a two-judge panel reversed the trial court’s decisiona and took issue with both the factual basis underpinning the decision and the constitutionality of the trial court’s conclusions:

The trial judge did not make any finding that the events in the courthouse on June 30, 2011 actually occurred or that, if they did, whether such acts amounted to harassment requiring the issuance of a final restraining order. When the court found that defendant committed domestic violence based upon a violation of the “consent agreement” between the parties, the court essentially converted the hearing into one on acts of domestic violence not alleged in the complaint, depriving defendant of her right to due process. See J.D., supra, 207 N.J. at 478. Therefore, it was improper to base a finding of domestic violence upon a series of events alleged as “past history” and not alleged in the complaint as a predicate act.”

[Emphasis Added]

The Appellate Court further noted how “[t]he judge’s determination here was conclusory and not anchored in specific findings of fact which would have supported the finding that a final restraining order was necessary” per Silver v. Silver. So even though this decision is not binding on other courts, it emphasizes the critical importance of laying out a strong factual basis upon which the Court can rely in any domestic violence case.

We can help. If you are a victim of domestic violence, a DeMichele & DeMichele attorney will apply the law to meticulously set forth the proofs required by N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 et seq to obtain a final restraining order intended to protect you and your loved ones. If you’ve been accused of committing domestic violence, a DeMichele & DeMichele attorney will carefully scrutinize you accuser’s proofs (or lack thereof), discuss possible defenses and work tirelessly to defend your rights. during this emotionally trying time.

Remember: you don’t have to go through this alone! If you or a loved one have questions regarding domestic violence, please contact the New Jersey family law attorneys at DeMichele & DeMichele.  Your confidential, initial consultation is only a click or call away.  Call now to speak to one of our matrimonial attorneys at (856) 546-1350 or click here to contact us online.

 

Post Author: Matt Rooney

is a New Jersey attorney, former Superior Court law clerk, and noted commentator who focuses his practice on family law, municipal court defense, and personal injury matters. He was recognized by SJ Magazine as a 2018 “Top Divorce & Family Attorney."

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