In August 2015, the New Jersey Legislature formally amended the Prevention Against Domestic Violence Act (N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(a)) to include the predicate act of criminal coercion as a fifteenth form of domestic violence (in addition to: homicide, assault, terroristic threats, kidnapping, criminal restraint, false imprisonment, sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, lewdness, criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass, harassment, and stalking, all of which are as defined under their respective criminal statutes).
By way of background, in order to obtain a restraining order under the NJ Prevention Against Domestic Violence Act, the plaintiff/victim must have a qualifying relationship with the defendant, must prove that one or more of the (now) 15 qualifying “predicate” acts of domestic violence was perpetrated against you, and must also show that there is a continuing need for protection based on the facts of your case. The addition of criminal coercion as a predicate act opens an additional avenue by which victims can seek to obtain protection under the Act.
Criminal coercion is defined as a threat made to unlawfully restrict freedom of action, with a purpose to coerce a course of conduct from a victim which defendant has no legal right to require, including threatening to:
- 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 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 defendant acts;
- Testify or provide information or withhold testimony or information with respect to another person’s legal claim or defense;
- Perform any other act which would not in itself substantially benefit the defendant but which is calculated to harm another person with respect to his health, safety, business, calling, career, financial condition, reputation or personal relationships.
A recent opinion penned by Judge Jones, J.L. v. A.C. specifically addressed the first category of criminal coercion. In that case, Judge Jones found that the defendant had criminally coerced the plaintiff into meeting with him, at which time he brutally beat her, by threatening the safety of her child if she refused to meet with him as he demanded. As Judge Jones notes in his opinion, the NJ Prevention Against Domestic Violence Act has been criticized for its failure to provide protection to children because the Act only extends protections to victims who are over the age of 18 (except in cases where the relationship between the victim and defendant is a dating relationship). Thus, Courts have typically denied relief to plaintiffs who try to obtain restraining orders for acts of violence committed against their children, rather than against them personally.
The major takeaway from this decision? As a parent, it seems that you can definitively obtain protection under this Act where the defendant coerces a course of conduct from you by threatening to inflict bodily injury or commit an offense against your child. It would also seem that this could extend to threats against anyone else in the plaintiff/victim’s life, including a boyfriend or girlfriend, co-worker, friend, or other family member. However, there are limits. Although Judge Jones’s opinion emphasizes that the new predicate act of criminal coercion fills in the gap where there was no way to obtain a restraining order for threats of violence toward a child or third party, it is important to note that there must also be “purpose to coerce a course of conduct” from the plaintiff him/herself. A threat to harm a child or third party is not enough; that threat must cause the victim to engage in a particular course of conduct. In J.L. v. A.C., that course of conduct was the act of meeting with the defendant, which the victim would not have done but for the threat to her child.
Additionally, it is vital to remember that the restraining order is still going to be between the plaintiff and the defendant – NOT between the defendant and the third party against whom a threat has been levied. With that said, the court has always been empowered to issue a final restraining order that includes a victim’s family members as additional protected persons. As an important practice tip, if you are an attorney or a self-represented party seeking a restraining order based upon criminal coercion that includes a threat to inflict bodily injury or commit an offense against a third party, it is imperative that you seek to include the threatened third party as a protected party on any final restraining order issued by the Court.