Previously, I have blogged on the issue of domestic violence and the NJ Prevention Of Domestic Violence Act. Our courts have carefully scrutinized this Act and its consequences, even determining whether and under what circumstances the issuance of a final restraining order can violate one’s right to due process. Unfortunately, the issue of domestic violence arises all too often in family courts.
The recently published Appellate Court decision of C.M.F. v. R.G.F. arose from an appeal after the trial court issued a final restraining order against an ex-husband. The act of domestic violence in question was found to be an act of harassment committed against the ex-wife while at their child’s sporting event. The main allegation was that the ex-husband screamed and yelled obscenities and other unpleasantries aimed towards his ex-wife.
These parties had gone through a long and tumultuous divorce. Ironically, in 2007 they agreed to parenting time arrangement for their children. They’d each reside in the marital home on a 50/50 basis, with one party living in the home for 3 1/2 days/week with the children and leaving 1 hour before the other party arrived and then alternating. This system seemed to work and avoided the parties having to see each other for quite some period of time.
In January 2009, after filing motions seeking to each have sole possession of the home with the children, an order was entered granting wife possession. The husband was to continue with the same amount of parenting time but to take place out of the marital home. On the day the order was received, wife text messaged husband to let him know what was ordered and to advise that she’d be taking their children to their basketball game and he could pick them up there. She would also leave the children’s overnight bag on the porch for husband’s retrieval. At some time later that evening, husband appeared at the home and a verbal altercation began between the parties. Wife called the police who seemingly diffused the situation at that time.
The next day, husband was present at the children’s basketball game. Wife testified that she brought a friend to the game as she was fearful of husband’s state of mind given the events of the prior evening. The basketball game was crowded and wife and her friend found a seat in the bleachers. As they sat down they heard husband immediately begin to scream down “verbally abusive words”. This lasted for some period of time. Wife did not return home that night but the next day when she did she discovered a dead cat with its head smashed lying on the trunk of her car and the front picture window of the house shattered. Husband denied committing these acts. These parties had a prior history of similar types of domestic violence.
Defendant appealed the final restraining order issued by the trial court arguing that his conduct was not ‘harassment’ as defined under the statute, that he didn’t have the requisite intent to commit harassment, and that the totality of the circumstances didn’t support the entry of a final restraining order. The Appellate Court affirmed the entry of the final restraining order.
The summarized definition of harassment under the statute is as follows:
a person commits a petty disorderly persons offense if, with purpose to harass another, he:
a. 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;
b. Subjects another to striking, kicking, shoving, or other offensive touching, or threatens to do so; or
c. Engages in any other course of alarming conduct or of repeatedly committed acts with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy such other person.
In affirming the final restraining order, the Court found that husband had conceded to using offensively coarse language. It also found that his speech invaded wife’s privacy. The last prong, whether his purpose was to disturb, irritate or bother his wife was held to be affirmative. Husband’s testimony that his anger over the court order was the catalyst for his outburst will not shield him from reach of the statute. The suggestion that anger would somehow negate an intent to harass was rejected. In this case, the nature of the verbal attack, the manner it was delivered, and the public nature of it all suggest a strong purpose to harass.
Many divorces are acrimonious. Acrimony and anger will not excuse or negate purposeful, harassing behavior committed by one party against the other, even with a volatile divorce pending.