The NJ Supreme Court has taken a strong stance on firearms ownership rights in the Garden State and issued a ruling that could have reverberations on gun crime laws for a very long time. The court’s ruling has resulted in a great deal of media coverage because it marks the first time in 26 years that the highest court in the state has issued any kind of ruling on gun ownership rights in New Jersey.
The court’s unanimous decision dealt with the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991 and clarified that the law does not violate the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. Under NJ’s domestic violence prevention law, police officers can seize weapons from individuals accused of domestic violence offenses and facing a temporary restraining order (TRO) or a final restraining order (FRO).
The court’s ruling has garnered praise and criticism from opposing sides of the always-heated gun rights debate. That’s because many believe that an alleged domestic violence offender should not be deprived of their 2nd Amendment rights and be forced to turn over their firearms to the state simply on the basis of an allegation of domestic violence.
Associate Justice Lee Solomon wrote the opinion for the unanimous court and made sure to address the gun rights debate. Solomon said that an individual’s right to bear arms can be restricted by the state because it is a right “subject to reasonable limitations.” Solomon went further and emphasized that “the police power of the state provides our Legislature with the authority to regulate firearms.”
Should Domestic Violence Offenders in Essex County NJ Have Gun Ownership Rights?
The case before the NJ Supreme Court involved a former police officer whose wife had alleged that he committed domestic violence in Morristown, New Jersey. When the alleged victim secured a restraining order against the defendant, local police enforced the NJ Prevention of Domestic Violence Act and confiscated the defendant’s firearms. Prosecutors justified the seizure by highlighting the suspect’s “volatile marital history” and suggesting that this history of domestic violence presented a risk of future violence.
The lower courts in the case ruled in favor of the defendant and said that the ex-cop was entitled to maintain ownership of his weapons. The lower courts did not find the ex-wife credible and said that the defendant had a constitutional right to bear arms that should not be trumped by his prior history of marital problems.
Now the NJ Supreme Court has overruled the lower courts and made it clear that a defendant with a history of domestic violence does not have a constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms. The ruling by the state’s highest court means that a domestic violence offender can be forced to forfeit his potentially deadly weapons.
Tough Penalties for Weapons Offenses in Essex County, NJ
The Garden State has extremely tough handgun possession laws and imposes strict penalties, including mandatory terms of incarceration in New Jersey State Prison. Now the NJ Supreme Court has given proponents of tough gun laws more ammunition in the gun rights debate by holding that police have the legal authority to seize handguns and other types of weapons in domestic violence situations.
Before the court handed down this ruling, there had not been a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling on firearms rights since 1990. That was actually a year before state legislators passed the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. In the earlier 1990 firearm possession case, the court ruled against two private detectives and said that they should not be allowed to obtain NJ firearms permits. The latest case also involved a defendant with ties to law enforcement: he was a former police officer in Roseland NJ. The ex-cop had been ordered by police to surrender his handguns and his firearms ID card because he allegedly had a prior history of domestic violence. Since the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling deals with quasi-law enforcement, it sets the bar extremely high in domestic violence weapons offense cases. That’s because former police officers like the defendant in this case typically have an easier time getting concealed carry permits and other tough-to-acquire firearm licenses in New Jersey.
The Standard of Proof in NJ Domestic Violence Weapons Forfeiture Cases
When it comes to protecting victims in domestic violence cases, NJ judges don’t like to take chances. That’s why they will usually side with prosecutors and victims in these instances and order an alleged domestic violence offender to surrender their firearms to law enforcement. The priority of judges in these cases is typically to ensure that the “public health, safety, or welfare” is protected.
The standard of proof that NJ judges use when making decisions in weapons forfeiture cases is the civil standard of “preponderance of the evidence,” which means “more likely than not.” So New Jersey prosecutors simply need to establish that the threat of violence posed by a defendant is more likely than not to lead to some form of violence against the victim. The legal standard of proof is the same at restraining order hearings. However, in criminal cases, prosecutors must meet a significantly higher standard of proof and establish the elements of a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
What Are the Implications of the NJ Supreme Court’s Ruling on Weapons Forfeiture in Domestic Violence Cases?
Shortly after the NJ Supreme Court issued its ruling, Nancy Erika Smith, a legal advocate for domestic violence victims in New Jersey and founder of Newark-based Wynona’s House, said, “If you can’t control yourself, if you have to be violent to your own family, of course you shouldn’t have a gun.”
This sentiment was echoed by another supporter of the court’s ruling, Alexander Roubian. Roubian is president of the NJ Second Amendment Society and he believes that domestic violence offenders who pose a threat of further violence should not be granted easy access to dangerous firearms. After the court’s ruling was announced, Roubian said that “anybody who’s given due process and is guilty of domestic violence should not be allowed to own any type of weapon.”