In a landmark decision, a judge in the Ocean County Superior Court, Family Division, affirmed the inclusion of criminal coercion among the predicate acts of domestic violence, an addition which was secured through formal amendment of the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(a)) in August of 2015. The decision clarifies the definition of criminal coercion as an act of domestic violence under New Jersey law, including threats, harassment, or intimidation of the victim’s loved one(s).
In order to fully grasp the significance of this decision in the eyes of the law, as well as its potential impact on New Jersey domestic violence cases moving forward, it is essential to understand the legal foundation. Consider the following: the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act previously recognized fourteen criminal acts as predicate acts of domestic violence: homicide, assault, terroristic threats, kidnapping, criminal restraint, false imprisonment, sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, lewdness, criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass, harassment, and stalking. As of August 2015, criminal coercion is also a qualifying offense when committed among individuals who satisfy the relationship criteria. As defined in section N.J.S.A. 2C:13-5 of the New Jersey Criminal Code, a threat to commit any of the following may constitute criminal coercion:
- Inflict bodily injury on anyone or commit any other offense;
- Accuse anyone of an offense;
- Expose any secret which would tend to subject any person to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or to impair his credit or business repute;
- Take or withhold action as an official, or cause an official to take or withhold action;
- Bring about or continue a strike, boycott or other collective action, except that such a threat shall not be deemed coercive when the restriction compelled is demanded in the course of negotiation for the benefit of the group in whose interest the actor acts;
- Testify or provide information or withhold testimony or information with respect to another’s legal claim or defense; or
- Perform any other act which would not in itself substantially benefit the actor but which is calculated to substantially harm another person with respect to his health, safety, business, calling, career, financial condition, reputation or personal relationships.
Criminal coercion is relevant to the circumstances of this case, as the accusation made by the plaintiff involved the defendant’s threat to harm her daughter. The plaintiff in this case, J.L., filed for a temporary restraining order after an incident that occurred on February 20, 2016, during which the defendant, A.C., punched her in the face. Following the incident, A.C. contacted the victim, demanding that she meet him. J.L. declined, informing A.C. that he was now subject to a temporary restraining order. A.C. then threatened to hurt the victim’s daughter if she did not follow his directive. In fear for her child’s safety, J.L. met with the plaintiff, at which time she was assaulted again.
As justification for the Final Restraining Order that was subsequently entered in this case, Judge Jones offered the following: not only did the two acts of physical violence (assaults) provide grounds for a final restraining order, but the threat to inflict harm on the victim’s loved one (criminal coercion) also fulfilled the necessary burden. In his opinion, Judge Jones explained:
A defendant may commit domestic violence through the act of coercion, terroristic threats, or harassment by threatening a plaintiff with harm to his or her minor child, even when the child, as a minor, would technically not qualify as a “victim of domestic violence” under a strict interpretation of the definition section of the Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19.
He further opined that the amendment to the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act to include criminal coercion as a predicate act of domestic violence “Is highly relevant, in that its language implicitly provides one with new legal protection from coercion through threats of violence to a third person.”
Although New Jersey law has not previously recognized acts of domestic violence against individuals under the age of 18, preventing parents from obtaining restraining orders against those who commit acts of violence against their children, this new decision expands the criteria for Final Restraining Orders to include children, loved ones, and significant relations who may be threatened by perpetrators of domestic violence. However, the mere threat of violence against a loved one is not enough to constitute grounds for a restraining order. The threat of harm to the third person must be, at least in part, intended to coerce, terrorize or harass the plaintiff.
Ultimately, a Final Restraining Order must be applied between the victim and the defendant, not between the defendant and the threatened third party. It is important to note, however, that third parties may be included as “protected persons” within the restraining order as issued. In this case, J.L.’s daughter was recognized as a protected person under the Final Restraining Order, thus preventing A.C. from having any contact with her.
Of course, cases of domestic violence often spell significant implications for child custody determinations in New Jersey, among divorcing spouses and unmarried parents, alike. In order to ensure that you and those you love are thoroughly protected, it is critical to understand your rights and to find an aggressive legal advocate. To speak with one of our seasoned New Jersey domestic violence attorneys today, contact our offices at 973-828-0829 for a free consultation.