Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

Under New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, When Does Constant Texting Become Harassment?

We have all had relationships that just have not worked out in the past. At the end for many, sometimes you just want closure. However, what if one party to the relationship keeps text messaging, emailing or Facebook messaging the other looking to talk? If you’re really not interested, you just ignore the person right?  As a family attorney, I am often in a position to determine what qualifies as harassment during the difficult stages of the demise of an intimate relationship.  Certainly, modern technology is now a predominant issue.  So when does constant texting become harassment under New Jersey law? The court addressed that issue in the case of S.J. v. R.B. Let’s explore.

In the case, the parties began dating in September 2012. The relationship lasted until March 2013. In February of 2013, the victim (or plaintiff) reported that the accused domestic abuser (or defendant) had put a rifle to her head and said “if you ever do what my ex-wife did to me I’m going to pull the trigger.” Of course, the plaintiff was extremely upset and overwhelmed because of the threat.  However, the defendant later informed her that the gun was not actually loaded and that he had used it merely to get his point across.

On March 3, 2013, the victim testified that she and the defendant woke up and had a fun pillow fight. However, when the plaintiff went to hit the defendant with her pillow, he dodged it and punched her in the face instead, rendering her unconscious. The injury was so severe that she continued to receive treatment for it through June 2013. After the pillow fight incident, the plaintiff had enough and broke it off with the defendant. Infuriated by that, the defendant started to send the plaintiff tons of text messages and Facebook messages. Additionally, he repeatedly called her for months after the incident

The victim testified that because the defendant was so insistent on getting in touch with her she feared he wanted to harm her and that her life might be in jeopardy. He had always been extremely jealous of the plaintiff and her high-school friend and would constantly send her rude text messages, no matter what time of day it was. Because of the constant bombardment, the plaintiff said that she was always on edge and lost sleep. Although she typically did not respond to any of the messages, occasionally the plaintiff did answer the defendant and made it clear she was not interested.

On April 14, 2013 the defendant sent a message saying that he did not want to be the “creepy ex-boyfriend stalker”, but he did not know how else to get closure. Furthermore, the defendant testified that he accidentally hit the plaintiff in the face during the pillow fight. On May 20, 2013, the plaintiff finally got a temporary restraining order. She alleged that the defendant assaulted her and sent her hundred of harassing text and Facebook messages once they broke up. She did, however, omit the rifle incident.

The trial court found that the defendant did not intentionally assault the plaintiff during the pillow fight. Yet, the judge did find that the defendant had harassed the plaintiff. The court looked to N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4 at the elements of harassment and found that the defendant’s messaged were sent at inconvenient hours and in an alarming, annoying way. Moreover, the judge found that the plaintiff should be granted a final restraining order, rather than a temporary one. The defendant appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Division noted that it would give deference to the trial court’s decision. It looked to the New Jersey's Prevention of Domestic Violence Act more in depth than the trial court did though, noting that the Act’s purpose is to assure victims of domestic violence maximum legal protection. Pursuant to the Act, the Appellate Division found that harassment was one of the offenses that could support a finding of domestic violence. The Act defined harassment as “a person commits a petty disorderly persons offense if with purpose to harass another he makes, or causes to be made, a communication or communications anonymously or at extremely inconvenient hours, or in offensively coarse language, or any other manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm.”

The New Jersey Appellate Division therefore affirmed the findings of the lower court stating that the defendant’s conduct via text messaging and Facebook amounted to harassment based on the statutory definition. Considering the defendant had sent so many messages as well, most of which were profane, the court held that his behavior was rightfully causing the plaintiff to be afraid.

If you believe an ex might be harassing you, please do not hesitate to contact my family law firm today. Thank you.