The New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Domestic Violence recently came out with a final report that addresses domestic violence matters in the state. In the report, the committee provides several recommendations that will probably have a significant impact on domestic violence resources, education about domestic violence, training for state personnel who deal with domestic violence matters, and interaction between Municipal Courts and Superior Courts throughout the state. (This last point could be crucial because Municipal Courts at the local level in New Jersey typically handle disorderly persons offenses, while Superior Courts at the county level have to deal with more serious felony-level crimes and restraining orders.)
Domestic violence cases are usually brought before a Municipal Court in an Essex County NJ municipality, with accompanying charges like simple assault, harassment, and disorderly conduct. If a person is convicted of a disorderly persons offense (misdemeanor), this can leave the convicted individual with a permanent criminal conviction on their record. Meanwhile, Superior Court cases in Essex County Superior Court often involve criminal charges such as aggravated assault, terroristic threats, stalking, and sexual assault.
While superior courts and municipal courts deal with criminal matters, the Superior Court, Family Division handles domestic violence matters. Domestic violence cases typically involve a permanent restraining order hearing or a violation of a restraining order (contempt).
The NJ Supreme Court Committee on Domestic Violence was created by New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner in February 2015. The task of the committee was to examine state domestic violence laws, resources for domestic violence victims, the interaction between New Jersey court systems, treatment methods that are made available to domestic violence offenders, risk assessment methods for domestic violence offenders, and educational resources on a host of domestic violence issues. The New Jersey domestic violence committee included members from all three branches of government, the private sector, advocacy groups, lawyers who represent clients charged with domestic violence offenses, and lawyers who represent victims of domestic violence. There were a number of politicians, judges, prosecutors, and criminal defense attorneys from Essex County and elsewhere in NJ who served crucial roles on the committee.
The committee ultimately made several recommendations for revising the NJ domestic violence laws, including:
- Expanding the use of domestic violence advocates in Municipal Court domestic violence matters so that both victims and defendants are fairly represented.
- Developing court rules and procedures that would allow domestic violence victims in certain high-risk situations to testify without having to show up to court.
- Expanding current New Jersey domestic violence laws to account for Internet threats and cyber-harassment, so that a person who receives an online threat can use the threat as a basis for seeking a restraining order.
- Expanding availability of therapeutic programs for children exposed to domestic violence at young ages.
I am Essex County NJ criminal defense attorney Travis Tormey. I have years of experience as a criminal defense lawyer, which gives me particular insight into the domestic violence committee’s recommendations. I’ve identified one potential issue with committee recommendation #2, which would possibly violate the constitutional rights of the accused by allowing alleged domestic violence victims to offer testimony in domestic violence cases without needed to show up to court. If NJ lawmakers implement this recommendation, it could be a clear violation of the confrontation clause, as well as a direct violation of the defendant’s due process rights.
Although there may occasionally be a need to protect high-risk victims in domestic violence cases, protections already exist in the form of sheriff’s officers at the courthouses. There really shouldn’t be any valid safety concerns that would trump a defendant’s constitutional rights in a criminal case or a domestic violence case.