NJ Supreme Court Committee Offers Recommendations for Domestic Violence Cases
A final report on domestic violence matters was recently released by the NJ Supreme Court Committee on Domestic Violence. In the report, the committee offers several recommendations that will have an impact on domestic violence resources, education, training, and interaction between Municipal Courts and Superior Courts. (This last point is important because Municipal Courts at the local level handle disorderly persons offenses, while Superior Courts at the county level handle more serious felony-level offenses and restraining orders.)
When a domestic violence case is brought before a Municipal Court in a Bergen County municipality, the charges often include offenses like simple assault, harassment, and disorderly conduct. If an individual is convicted of one of these disorderly persons offenses (misdemeanors), it can lead to a permanent criminal conviction on their record. Meanwhile, Superior Court cases often involve charges like aggravated assault, terroristic threats, stalking, and sexual assault.
The Superior Court, Family Division deals with domestic violence matters, which are treated separately from related criminal matters. A domestic violence case heard in the Family Division may involve a permanent restraining order hearing or a violation of a restraining order (contempt).
In February 2015, NJ Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner took the bold step of creating the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Domestic Violence in order to more thoroughly examine state domestic violence laws, resources available to domestic violence victims, the interaction between the NJ court systems, treatment methods available for domestic violence offenders, methods of risk assessment, and educational resources on domestic violence issues. The NJ domestic violence committee included members from a number of groups, including all three branches of government in New Jersey, the private sector, advocacy groups, attorneys who defend clients charged with domestic violence offenses, and attorneys who represent domestic violence victims. Politicians, judges, prosecutors, and criminal defense lawyers from Bergen County and elsewhere in NJ served important roles on the committee.
The committee made a number of recommendations, including:
- Expanding use of domestic violence advocates in Municipal Court domestic violence matters so that victims, as well as defendants, are fairly represented.
- Developing court rules and procedures to allow domestic violence victims in certain high-risk situations to testify without needing to be present in the courtroom.
- Expanding current New Jersey domestic violence laws to cover Internet threats and cyber-harassment as a basis for filing a restraining order in the first place.
- Expanding availability of therapeutic programs for kids who have been exposed to domestic violence at a young age.
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I am Bergen County NJ criminal defense attorney Travis J. Tormey. As an experienced criminal defense lawyer, I have identified a potential problem with committee recommendation #2, which might allow alleged domestic violence victims to provide testimony in domestic violence cases without needing to show up to court. This recommendation might violate the confrontation clause, which is intended to protect defendants’ rights by ensuring that anyone accused of a crime or criminal act is able to confront their accuser before a judgment is rendered. If this recommendation is ultimately implemented by New Jersey lawmakers, it could constitute a clear violation of a defendant’s constitutional right to due process. While I recognize the need to protect high-risk victims in domestic violence matters, there are already a number of protections in place. For instance, the courthouse is guarded by sheriff’s officers, so there really should not be any valid safety concerns about showing up to testify.