The NJ Supreme Court Committee on Domestic Violence has released a final report and issued a number of recommendations that affect how New Jersey courts may deal with domestic violence matters in the future. The recommendations deal with various aspects of the NJ domestic violence legal system, including available resources, education, training on how to properly handle domestic violence situations, and the manner of interactions between NJ Local Municipal Courts (which adjudicate disorderly persons or misdemeanor-level cases) and NJ County Superior Courts (which adjudicate indictable, felony-level cases and restraining orders).
When it comes to criminal charges that are handled in Municipal Court, some of the most common criminal offenses include simple assault, harassment, and disorderly conduct related to domestic violence matters. A person who is convicted on one of these disorderly persons offenses (misdemeanors) can end up with a permanent criminal charge on their record. More serious crimes (felonies), like aggravated assault, terroristic threats, stalking, sexual assault, and homicide, are handled in Superior Court.
The Superior Court, Family Division deals with all domestic violence matters in New Jersey, including things like permanent restraining order hearings and violations of a restraining order (contempt).
The NJ Supreme Court Committee on Domestic Violence was initially created by New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner in February 2015. The objective of the committee was to examine domestic violence laws already on the books, the resources made available to domestic violence victims, the types of interactions between the court systems in NJ, potential treatment methods available for domestic violence offenders, methods for risk assessment of domestic violence offenders, and availability and effectiveness of resources for educating and training personnel on domestic violence issues. The domestic violence committee included members from all three branches of government in New Jersey, the private sector, certain interested advocacy groups, criminal defense attorneys who represent clients charged with domestic violence offenses, and attorneys who advocate for victims of domestic violence in New Jersey. This meant that a wide range of individuals composed the committee: politicians, judges, prosecutors, and criminal defense attorneys from Morris County, Bergen County, and elsewhere in New Jersey.
The committee provided several recommendations, including:
- Expanding use of domestic violence advocates in NJ Local Municipal Court cases to ensure that both victims and defendants are fairly represented in domestic violence matters.
- Developing clear court rules and procedures to allow domestic violence victims in high-risk matters to testify in hearings without the need to be present in the courtroom.
- Expanding NJ domestic violence laws to cover cyber-harassment and threats communicated over the Internet as a basis for filing a restraining order.
- Expanding therapeutic programs made available to children who are exposed to domestic violence incidents.
I am Travis J. Tormey, an experienced criminal defense attorney who represents clients throughout New Jersey, including Morris County, Essex County, and Passaic County. I have taken a close look at the recent recommendations of the NJ Supreme Court Committee on Domestic Violence and I believe that may be a potential issue with recommendation #2, which would make it possible for alleged domestic violence victims to testify in a domestic violence case without needing to show up to court. This recommendation could violate the confrontation clause, which is meant to protect defendants’ rights by ensuring that an individual who is accused of a criminal act is able to confront their accuser in open court. If the domestic violence committee’s recommendation is ultimately implemented by New Jersey lawmakers, it could violate a defendant’s constitutional right to due process. I recognize that high-risk victims of domestic violence need to feel safe and protected, but there are already measures taken by law enforcement and the legal system to protect these individuals: courthouses are highly guarded by sheriff’s officers, which means that there should not be a valid safety concern over appearing in court.