As a New Jersey restraining order attorney, I know that sometimes people do not abide by the final restraining orders entered against them. Conversely, the lawyers at my law firms also have cases wherein people have to go to court to defend themselves against alleged violations of final restraining orders when they have not committed any violations. Such a circumstance can be complicated and costly, and that is why it is important to retain an attorney experienced with handling such matters. Actions that would not constitute a crime otherwise, but would constitute a violation of a domestic violence restraining order, are treated as criminal disorderly persons offenses, and are prosecuted in Family Part court without indictment. Because violating a restraining order is punishable as a criminal action, a defendant in a such a case is entitled all the rights criminal defendants are. That includes the presumption of innocence, and requirement for the State to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, every single element of the alleged offense.
In State v. V.C., defendant V.C. appealed a conviction of a disorderly persons offense of contempt under New Jersey Statute 2C:29-9(b), because she violated a final restraining order entered under the 1991 Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, also known as New Jersey Statute 2C:25-17 to -35. The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the conviction because the factual findings made by the Family Part judge were not sufficient to establish that V.C. purposely and knowingly violated the final restraining order beyond a reasonable doubt.
V.C. and J.H. had been involved in a dating relationship, and had two children together. Their relationship had ended several years before this litigation, and the children had been living under the custody of their maternal grandmother. J.H. had parenting time with the kids every Tuesday and Thursday from after school or daycare to 7 o’clock. A final restraining was entered against V.C which prevented her from having indirect or direct contact or communication with J.H. This final restraining order gave rise to the incident that occurred on August 26, 2014 that led to the contempt charge.
On the morning of the 26th, J.H. arrived at the kids’ daycare at 7:15 a.m. During testimony, J.H. alleged that he chose to take the kids out of daycare because they did not want to go on a field trip scheduled that day. When he first got to the daycare the children had not yet arrived, so J.H. decided to go to a Wawa convenience store nearby. When he pulled in the parking lot of the Wawa he saw V.C. and her father leaving the parking lot in a truck. John got back to the daycare about fifteen minutes later, and saw V.C. and her father sitting in the truck. V.C.’s father gestured for J.H. to come over and told him that he could not pick the kids up until later. J.H. alleged that V.C. got out of the truck, walked to him, and told him he could not pick up the children. J.H. reminded her that, as per the final restraining order, she was not allowed to talk to him, and motioned with his hand for her to stop. When he walked to the daycare center, V.C.’s father followed him, and the two got into an argument. Someone who worked at the daycare told the men to leave and called the police.
During testimony, V.C.’s father alleged that she never got out of her truck, nor did she speak to J.H. On the contrary, he alleged that when he saw J.H. enter the parking lot, he told him that he was not supposed to pick up the kids until 3:00 p.m. Moreover, a daycare worker also stated that she never saw V.C. leave the car and speak with J.H. after he returned the second time. Additionally, the police officer that responded to the call also testified that when he got to the scene, V.C. and her father were both sitting in their truck. The same officer also spoke with the daycare worker, J.H., V.C., and her father. After investigating, the police officer made the decision not to file any charges against anyone. Rather, he asked V.C. and her father to leave, which they did.
John went to the police station on September 5, 2014 and requested that they issue a criminal complaint of contempt against V.C., and based on his report, a complaint was issued. On February 19, 2015, a bench trial was conducted. The State prosecuted and called only J.H. as a witness. The defense called the daycare work, the police officer who responded to the incident and V.C.’s father to the stand. All of the witnesses were found to be credible by the judge. The presiding judge never made a finding relating to whether V.C. ever left her car. Instead, the judge concluded that it was not necessary to make a finding relating to this disputed issue, because he reasoned that V.C. violated the final restraining order by choosing to stay in the parking lot when J.H. arrived at the daycare center, and when she caused her father to talk to John about picking up the kids later.
V.C. appealed her conviction of contempt and argued: (1) that the trial court’s decision went against the weight of all the credible evidence; and (2) that even if the acts that J.H. alleged actually occurred, those acts do not constitute a violation of the final restraining order entered against her. The New Jersey Appellate Division explained that someone is guilty of contempt if they knowingly or purposely violate any provision of a final restraining order issued under the provisions enumerated in New Jersey Statute 2C:29-9(b)(1), the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. Actions that would not constitute a crime otherwise, but would constitute a violation of a domestic violence restraining order, are treated as criminal disorderly persons offenses, and are prosecuted in Family Part court without indictment. Because violating a restraining order is punishable as a criminal action, a defendant in a such a case is entitled all the rights criminal defendants are. That includes the presumption of innocence, and requirement for the State to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, every single element of the alleged offense.
The New Jersey Appellate Division explained that the Prevention of Domestic Act was not enacted to adjudicate and regulate every single angry word, loss of temper, or argument between people with a family relationship. Appellate review of a Family Part judge’s finding of guilt during a contempt hearing is limited to determining if the factual record has enough sufficient credible evidence to support the trial judge’s decision. Generally, the factual findings of a trial or Family Part court are given deference because of the lower courts ability to make credibility determinations about the witnesses called to testify on the stand, in person and first hand. The Family Part gets a certain feel of case that the New Jersey Appellate Division could never get from a mere review of the record. That said, when an appellate court reviews a trial courts factual findings in a criminal proceeding, it must make sure that the State succeeded in carrying its burden of establishing a person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
In State v. V.C., the New Jersey Appellate Division found that the factual record did not present a beyond a reasonable doubt conclusion based on evidence that V.C. knowingly or purposely violated the provisions of a final restraining order entered against her. The Family Part judge failed to make a conclusive finding that she left her truck, or had any sort of direct contact or communication with J.H. In fact, the Family Part judge actually explicitly declined to review this vital disputed issue. Even though the trial judge inferred that V.C. instigated her father to make harassing comments to J.H., the New Jersey Appellate Division could not find any credible evidence to support that finding. Because the communication between J.H and V.C.’s father related to when J.H. was supposed to pick up the children, the appellate panel held that it did not rise to the level of harassment. According to New Jersey Statute 2C:33-4(a), harassment requires communication that is likely to cause alarm or annoyance. Furthermore, there was nothing in the record that supported a finding that V.C. caused her father to harass J.H. Therefore, the New Jersey Appellate Division held that the evidence submitted at trial showed that the State of New Jersey did not meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt, that V.C. knowingly and purposefully violated the final restraining order entered against her.