Yes, “coercion” under the 2015 amendments of New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, and found that the protection of the Act applies to third parties close to the victim. As a restraining order attorney, it is essential to understand all facets of New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. Therefore, my associate lawyers and I monitor the New Jersey Legislature as they continue to amend the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act to make it stronger. The 2015 amendments to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act now include threats to someone’s child as a form of domestic violence. In the recent case of J.L. v. A.C., Judge Jones of the Family Part of Ocean County explored the definition of “coercion” under the 2015 amendments of New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, and found that the protection of the Act applies to third parties close to the victim.
J.L v. A.C., involved a man, A.C., who committed domestic violence, to his partner, by either acting violently, and by threatening violence to her child. The Family Part court of Ocean County held: (1) According to the new 2015 amendments to the Domestic Violence statute, New Jersey courts recognize criminal coercion as a type of domestic violence; (2) a liberal yet reasonable interpretation of the 2015 amendments may include intentionally intimidating or even trying to intimidate someone by threatening that person’s child or loved one, as criminal coercion; and (3) domestic violence can be committed by terroristic threats, an act of coercion, or harassment through threatening to harm someone’s child, even if the child would not be qualified as a domestic violence victim under a narrow interpretation of the definitions of New Jersey’s Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A 2C:25-19.
J.L. and A.C. we’re not a married couple, but dated and lived in their own separate homes. J.L. had been married once, and took care of her five-year-old daughter from that marriage. J.L. testified that on February 20, 2016, A.C. had physically assaulted her twice in her car, by hitting her face. She also alleged that A.C. hit her car and damaged the car’s windshield. That night, she went to the police department, reported the altercation, and got a temporary restraining order to protect her. The next morning, A.C. called her and demanded that she pick him up in her car. She informed him that she had gotten a temporary restraining order against him, even though he had not been properly served with it, and that she was not going to pick him up. Upon hearing this, he threatened her that if she did not do as he asked and picked him up he would harm her daughter, Julie.
Fearing for her daughter’s safety, and to protect her from harm, she went against her will and picked him up. Once she arrived he assaulted her again; he punched her in the face and the body. The strikes were so severe that he left clearly visible physical injuries, which she documented by taking photographs and submitting into evidence. Soon after this altercation the police arrested A.C.
At the final hearing, A.C. claimed he did not remember what happened on February 20 and 21, but still accepted responsibility for what happened. The court found that J.L.’s version of events and testimony were credible, and held that A.C. did assault her on both February 20 and February 21. These two assaults would be enough to sustain a finding of domestic violence, and support a finding of a necessity to issue a final restraining order under the two-part test enumerated in Silver v. Silver. Judge Jones, however, found the events between the two assaults to also be of legal significance because they touched upon another very real, yet often overlooked, form of domestic violence-emotional abuse.
Judge Jones stated that it is possible to commit domestic violence against someone by threatening harm to a third party close to that person, such as a parent, sibling, child, significant other, or loved one. Even though a threat is directed to a third person, it is possible that the abuser made the threat to scare, intimidate and emotionally traumatize the victim. A threat of this nature can constitute coercion of the victim, a terroristic threat, and/or harassment, and thus a form of domestic violence that warrants a restraining order.
The New Jersey Legislature amended the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act in August 2015 to include criminal coercion as a form of domestic violence. As this amendment is relatively new, however, there was little to no case law that interpreted and applied coercion in a domestic violence case. New Jersey Statute 2C:13-5, defines criminal coercion and includes seven types of threats including threatening to: inflict bodily harm on anyone, accuse anyone of an offense; expose a secret that might cause a person to be hated ridiculed, or impair that person’s business reputation or credit; withhold action as an official; start a strike or boycott unless in the course of a negation; testify, provide or withhold information; or any other act that is calculated to harm someone’s health, safety, calling, business, financial status, personal relationship, reputation, or career.
The first definition states that coercion can be a threat to harm anyone, not just to whom the threat is made. Someone can try and intimidate or coerce someone by threatening to injure someone that person cares about or loves. As such, J.C. v. A.C., did constitute a case of domestic violence by coercion. J.C. testified that see was legitimately scared of A.C.’s threat to harm her daughter. Even though she applied for a restraining order after A.C. physically assaulted her, J.L. still felt she needed to obey with his demands, just to be assaulted again. By his coercive use of intimidation and fear, A.C. was able to take advantage of J.L.’s fear and love of her daughter. He basically coerced her to give up her own safety to protect her daughter. When a victim has a young child, an abuser can try to emotionally coerce, terrorize, harass, or scare the victim by threatening to injure the child, irrespective of whether the abuser actually has an intention to harm the child. Judge Jones explained that emotional harm such as this can actually be more serious, hurtful, and traumatizing than physical harm. Many parents would sacrifice their own welfare and health to protect their children. That is why an abuser’s threat to harm a victim’s child can be so mentally devastating that is could be considered a deliberate type of coercion and a form of domestic violence. New Jersey courts have acknowledged that parents can suffer serious emotional harm from injury to a family member or child.
J.L. was already a victim of A.C.’s abuse. When A.C. coerced her by threatening physical injury on her young daughter, she was still the direct and intended victim of his threats of violence. The New Jersey Legislature encourages Family Part courts to apply the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act broadly to address the evils of domestic violence. Therefore, J.L. deserves protection from coercion by threat of harm to her daughter. Judge Jones held that A.C.’s threats did not just constitute coercion, but were also harassment and terroristic threats.
When the factual record presents a finding that an abuser’s purpose in threatening injury to third party to harass, terroriz
e, or coerce the victim, then a court can find domestic violence, and issue a final restraining order to protect the well-being, health and safety of the victim. This does not mean that every threat to a close third party will constitute domestic violence. Judge Jones held that each case must be decided by a fact specific inquiry. Still, New Jersey has a strong public policy against domestic violence. The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act is remedial, and is to interpreted broadly in order to achieve its goal of protecting victims. Therefore, the Family Part court of Ocean County entered a final restraining order against A.C. to protect J.L., and also added her daughter’s name to the order so that J.L. could not contact the child either.
Please never hesitate to contact my office is you are facing a domestic violence situation.