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

When Is Harassment Considered Domestic Violence In New Jersey?

Some of the most difficult cases that I face as a Domestic violence lawyer id drawing distinction between harassment and, what my other attorney colleagues and I often call, “divorce-bickering.”  While many couples that are breaking up have arguments, harassment describes a pattern of abusive and controlling behavior with the intent to alarm the victim as to their safety and welfare.  I have had many judges here in New Jersey tell me that temporary restraining orders harassment cases under New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence act are the toughest to determine as to whether a final restraining order should be issued.  The premier harassment case under New Jersey domestic violence law is the Corrente case.

Anne Corrente had prevailed on a domestic violence complaint, even though there was no history of domestic violence between her and her spouse, and she was not in any immediate danger. Then the New Jersey Appellate Division overturned the final restraining order.  The facts are as follows:

Anne and John Corrente were married in August 1992. Due to an argument they separated after only one year. In November 1993, Anne filed a domestic violence complaint against John. According to her complaint, John called Anne while she was at work and threatened her with “drastic measures” if she did not supply him with money to pay bills.

While they were together, Anne gave John $ 170 a week toward the payment of their expenses. However the separation had been hard on Anne. She was on her own and could not afford to also help support John.

After she got home from work, Anne discovered that her phone line was disconnected. Once Anne got to her second job, she called her mom and asked her to contact the phone company to discover what had happened. Her mother discovered that John’s sister had called the phone company and cancelled Anne’s phone service with John’s authorization.

John would also repeatedly call Anne at work.  John knew that Anne could not talk at work, yet he still contacted her there twice a day. During the calls he would tell her to either leave the house or give him money.

John’s account of the story was a little different. He testified that he called her on November 9 to tell her he would be picking up some clothes from the house, and to ask her if she had money for bills. After Anne informed him that she had spent the money and would not be able to pay him either this week or the next, he hung up. According to John, he did not turn off her phone to annoy or harass her. Instead, John claims that he had to turn it off because he did not have enough money to afford it. He did not feel that he had to inform Anne of his reasoning because the phone was in his name. During his testimony he also stressed that on October 13, Anne told a marriage counselor that there had been no prior history of domestic violence while the two were together.

Despite John’s story, the trial judge found, based on the evidence, that domestic violence had indeed occurred. The judge found that John’s actions had caused Anne alarm, which in turn caused her to be harassed. The specific actions the judge noted where the calls John made to Anne’s place of work, which he categorized as harassing communication. The judge also found that John’s intent, when he turned off the phone without first giving Anne notice, was to put her in fear and alarm her. As a result, the judge signed an order that prohibited John from any future acts of violence. The order also stated that John was not allowed on Anne’s home, he was no longer allowed to make any harassing communications to Anne, and Anne was granted sole possession of the house.  John appealed the decision, and argued that his acts did not constitute domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a term of art. It describes a pattern of abusive and controlling behavior that injures its victim. According to New Jersey Statute 2C:25-18, domestic violence is a serious crime against society. There are thousands of victims in the State of New Jersey who are beaten, tortured, and even killed in some extreme cases. There is also a correlation between spousal abuse and child abuse. Children, who may not be physically assaulted, suffer deep and long lasting emotional affects from witnessing domestic violence. In passing New Jersey Statute 2C:25-18, the legislature intended to make sure victims of domestic violence had the maximum protection from abuse that the law could provide.

The domestic violence statute indicates that the focus of the Legislature was regular serious abuse. This is evidenced by the references to torture, battery, beatings, and killings. Another focus was the long term damage suffered by children who observed the same acts. Some of the remedies provided by the statute are the exclusion of the offender from the marital home, suspension of visitation, monetary relief to the victim, and mandatory counseling. To ensure that victims of domestic violence who were subjected to criminal conduct by their mates had complete access to protection under the legal system, the domestic violence statute incorporated the statutes for homicide, assault, terroristic threats, kidnapping, criminal restraint, false imprisonment, sexual assault, criminal sexual conduct, lewdness, criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass, and harassment.

Even though the previous statutes were incorporated into the domestic violence statute that does not necessarily mean that any one of these acts would automatically issue a domestic violence order. The law requires that acts claimed by the victim to be domestic violence must be reviewed in light of the previous history of domestic violence between the spouses, including previous threats, harassments and physical abuse. Furthermore the court must determine whether there is a present and immediate danger to the person. This reflects the idea that domestic violence is usually more than just an isolated act, but rather a pattern of abuse.

In the Corrente case, the focus was harassment. According to New Jersey Statute 2C:33-4, harassment is defined as when a person: makes a communication anonymously or at inconvenient hours, in an offensive manner or any other manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; strikes, kicks, shoves, or threatens to do so; engages in any other alarming conduct or repeatedly commits acts with the purpose to alarm or seriously annoy the other person; or commits a crime of the fourth degree, acting with ill will, hatred or bias, with a purpose to intimidate based on the other person’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity. None of the previous elements were present in the Corrente case.

Even though Anne might have felt alarmed, there was no finding that John had any intent to harass Anne when he called her at work. Even though the trial judge did find an intent to harass when John turned off the phone, that act was neither repeated nor a course of conduct. Moreover, none of John’s acts, including the phone calls and turning off the phone, could be characterized as alarming or seriously annoying. John’s conduct was not what the Legislature had in mind when it passed New Jersey Statute 2C:25-18. The complaint did not allege any history of violence or abuse, nor was there any immediate threat to safety. The Corrente case was a conflict over finances and possession of the marital home. While John might have acted in an immature and petty manner, Anne was never harmed or subjected to potential injury. The trial court’s decision trivialized the abuse of true domestic violence victims and misinterpreted the statute designed to protect them. The Appellate Division ultimately found the trial court’s decision as unwarranted and set aside the order.

If you or a loved one find themselves in a domestic violence situation, I hope you contact my office at once so we may help.  Thank you.