New Jersey Supreme Court Clarifies Criminal Harassment Statute
The New Jersey Supreme Court recently clarified the State’s criminal harassment statute. The ambiguous language in New Jersey’s harassment law, N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c), required the Court to distinguish between the criminal offense of harassment and freedom of speech protected under the First Amendment.
The case that gave rise to this precedential decision involved a Union County, NJ corrections officer who was convicted of harassment for making flyers that included offensive comments about a fellow officer. The defendant, William Burkert, was charged with harassment after creating two flyers containing wedding photos of one of his colleagues, Gerald Halton. Burkert modified the photos, adding vulgar statements about Halton, with whom he had worked for 20 years.
Halton reportedly feared for his safety when he saw the flyers and was concerned about his ability to command authority among the inmates. He subsequently left his job as a corrections officer. Burkert was ultimately convicted on two counts of harassment. He appealed the decision, arguing that his behavior didn’t constitute harassing conduct and that the First Amendment protected his freedom to write the comments on the photos.
The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with Burket, explaining in their opinion that although his behavior was unprofessional and inappropriate, it was protected speech. Justice Albin stated:
“The free-speech guarantees of our federal and state constitutions safeguard not only polite and decorous conversation and debate but also speech that we hate—speech that is crude, obnoxious and boorish…A commitment to free speech requires that we tolerate communications of which we strongly disapprove.”
Importantly, this case compelled the NJ Supreme Court to acknowledge the vagueness of the current harassment statute in New Jersey. According to N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c), it is a petty disorderly persons offense for a person to engage in any course of communication or conduct causing annoyance or alarm with the purpose to harass another. Obviously, this leaves a ton of room for interpretation, considering conduct offensive to some may be not be considered as such to others.
In order to further qualify true criminal harassment under NJ law, the Court created a standard based on “pure expressive activity.” They went on to clarify the language in subsection (c) to refer to “repeated communications directed at a person that reasonably put that person in fear for his safety or security or that intolerably interfere with that person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.”
With harassment further defined in New Jersey criminal case law, a skilled criminal defense attorney can argue for a dismissal of harassment charges when the alleged behavior does not rise to the newly established standard.
Many cases of harassment in New Jersey involve domestic violence, which means the defendant may face both criminal charges and a permanent restraining order. At The Tormey Law Firm, our attorneys handle all aspects of these cases. We appear in the Superior Court, Family Division for the final restraining order hearing and in the Municipal Court for the harassment charge. It is always our goal to have both elements dismissed, allowing our client to avoid a protective order against them and a conviction on their criminal record.
If you have been charged with harassment in New Jersey, consulting a knowledgeable attorney is vital to the success of your case. Likewise, a final restraining order can have significant implications for the rest of your life. Do not delay in seeking legal counsel. Contact us online or by phone at (201)-556-1570 to speak with a New Jersey harassment defense attorney. The consultation is free and so are the answers you need.
For more information about this matter, visit the following link: Court Crafts Harassment Standard in ‘Puerile’ Flyer Case