A Domestic Violence Restraining Order Has Been Entered - What Does it Mean?
In New Jersey, domestic violence is a legal term of art for a pattern of abusive and/or controlling behavior that is damaging to the victim. Restraining Orders are issued by Municipal and Superior Court Judges after hearing from only the alleged victim, which can have an extreme impact.
Who Issues Domestic Violence Restraining OrdersIn New Jersey, an alleged victim of domestic violence can apply to a Superior Court Judge in the Family Part during normal business hours, or to a Municipal Court Judge before or after normal business hours, if they are the victim of a predicate act of domestic violence. Currently, there are 17 criminal acts and a "catch-all" category of any other criminal act capable of causing serious physical injury or death, which, if alleged, are sufficient to form the basis for a temporary restraining order to be issued. The criminal acts range from assault to criminal mischief to harassment. The vast majority of applications are based on either harassment or assault.
A significant portion of domestic violence restraining orders are issued by Municipal Court judges in response to a domestic disturbance where police officers are called to a shared residence. Police officers are trained to assess domestic disturbances and, in instances where domestic violence is alleged by a party to the disturbance, the police will ask the alleged victim if they wish to make an application for a restraining order. If they do, the police will contact the local Municipal Court judge who will determine based on brief testimony whether a restraining order should be issued. If the police see signs of physical abuse against a party to a domestic disturbance, they have a mandatory duty to make an arrest, which is a separate and distinct action from the domestic violence restraining order application.
During normal business hours, an alleged victim of domestic violence can make an application to a Family Court Judge in the Superior Court. In most counties, the initial application is heard by a Domestic Violence Hearing Officer who makes a recommendation to a Superior Court Judge on whether to issue the Temporary Restraining Order. If the Domestic Violence Hearing Officer concludes that a Temporary Restraining Order should not be issued, the alleged victim has the right to be heard again by the Superior Court Judge, who will take the testimony from the complaining person again and they will make the final decision. If denied, a complaining person's only avenue of further recourse is to make an appeal to the Appellate Division. If they are the victim of further acts of domestic violence, however, these new acts of domestic violence can form the basis for a new application for a restraining order.
In summary, domestic violence restraining orders are entered either by Superior Court Judges in the Family Part during normal business hours (typically 8:30am to 4:00pm) and by Municipal Court Judges during all other hours and on holidays and Court Recesses.
What Restraints are Included in a Domestic Violence Restraining OrderIf a Restraining Order is entered, it typically restrains the accused from having any and all contact, written, oral, electronic, social media, etc., with the accuser and any other persons named on the Restraining Order. In cases where a party lives with children or parents, this typically includes communication with those children and the other household members. Communication includes having third parties communicate on your behalf to the other party and it even includes non-verbal communication, such as sending flowers/gifts/etc., and parties that have restraining orders entered against them should not have any contact whatsoever with their accuser.
Restraining Orders typically include who gets temporary possession of the shared residence, which usually is given to the complaining party. They can also receive temporary financial support, temporary control of financial accounts, and more impactful, perhaps, temporary custody of minor children with significant restrictions on parenting time for the other party, if any is granted at all.
The foregoing restraints are significant and can be tremendously impactful on both parties' lives, for both the immediate and short term future.
What is the Next Step After a Domestic Violence Restraining Order is EnteredThe Domestic Violence statute requires that these cases have hearings within ten days, which may not seem like a long time. In practice, especially in contested cases, the ten day requirement is not met and cases can take upwards of thirty days until completion, longer in some counties. At the first hearing, both parties will be asked if they want legal representation, which is their absolute right. When the matter is ready to proceed to trial, a Superior Court Judge will hear from the alleged victim (Plaintiff) and any witnesses they have on their behalf. They are subject to cross examination from the alleged abuser, who will similarly be given an opportunity to testify as to their version of events. They will similarly be subject to cross-examination and can have any witnesses testify on their behalf.
If the Judge believes Plaintiff proved a predicate act of domestic violence and that they are in need of a restraining order to protect themselves from future acts of domestic violence, the Temporary Restraining Order will be converted into a Final Restraining Order, which means that the restraints on contact, housing, etc., will continue. In New Jersey, there is no automatic termination of these restraints and they will continue until vacated by the Superior Court.
As the timeline with a Domestic Violence Restraining Order is significantly constrained, and the impact is potentially expansive, it is critical that persons either accused of committing an act of domestic violence or are the victims of such domestic violence contact an attorney that practices in domestic violence so they can discuss all of their rights and how best they can move forward.