In 1991, the New Jersey Legislature enacted the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 et seq. In implementing this law, the legislature was aware of the significant number of persons who have been beaten, tortured and in some cases killed by spouses, cohabitants or “significant others.” Perpetrators of domestic violence pervade all educational, social and economic backgrounds and ethnic groups. The lawmakers felt that it was necessary to pass a new statute to protect victims by providing access to emergent and long-term civil and criminal remedies and sanctions. Under the Act, one or more of the following events inflicted upon a protected person may constitute domestic violence: homicide; assault; terroristic threats; kidnapping; criminal restraint; false imprisonment; sexual assault; criminal sexual contact; lewdness; criminal mischief; burglary; criminal trespass; harassment; stalking; criminal coercion; robbery; contempt of a domestic violence order; and any other crime involving risk of death or serious bodily injury to a protected person.
In a nutshell, the procedure first involves the issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO), generally authorized by a Municipal Court Judge based upon the local jurist’s acceptance of a factual description given by the victim (often by telephone) that embraces one or more of the 18 events described above. The TRO is served by the municipal police upon the accused and he or she is removed from the parties’ mutual residence pending disposition of the case by way of a Superior Court final restraining order (FRO) hearing, usually scheduled 10 to 14 days later. If an FRO is ultimately issued, interaction between the victim and the accused is disallowed by the court. Frequently, this includes restrictions against telephone, email and text-message communications as well as barring face-to-face communications. Occasionally, however, (and particularly if the parties have minor children) the FRO may contain a provision that contact will be permitted if there is an emergent situation involving one of the children. This emergent contact generally sanctions only one-time text-message, email or telephone contact for that very limited purpose.
After the issuance of the FRO, a common problem that arises is the practical difficulties in raising minor children in light of a court order barring any and all forms of association between the parents. Countless scenarios unfold: Predicaments surrounding parenting-time pickups and dropoffs; transporting the children to and from extracurricular activities; medical appointments; school parent-teacher meetings; communicating with the other parent about proposed vacations with the children or extended summer parenting-time arrangements. With the FRO, communications between the parents about the children are supposed to take place through third parties, most frequently the grandparents or occasionally siblings. Often this is impractical. The grandparents or siblings may not be available all the time for a host of legitimate reasons. It then becomes commonplace for the parent who is the protected party under the FRO to contact the other parent. Next, the parent against whom the FRO has been secured in response telephones, emails or text-messages the protected parent. Even if well-intentioned, this is a violation of the FRO. Even such an innocent act may lead to a criminal contempt hearing for violation of the FRO. Regretfully, there is also a less savory scenario in which the protected person purposely seeks out the restrained person to bait him/her into a form of contact violating the FRO. The salutary purpose of the Domestic Violence Act is thus being used as a sword instead of as a protective mechanism as intended by the legislature and the court.
Regardless of the motivation, failure to strictly adhere to the requirements of the FRO is a violation—a fourth-degree crime—under the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice. Therefore, if under an FRO, a parent should always respond through a third party to avoid this problem.
After the issuance of the FRO it is not unusual for the parties to reconcile. Nonetheless, New Jersey case law holds that reconciliation between parties to a domestic violence restraining order, without application to the court to dismiss the order, does not void the order or otherwise serve as a defense to a charge of contempt for violating the order. The policy position of the New Jersey courts on this point is that an order of the court must be obeyed unless and until the court acts to change or rescind the order. In a contempt proceeding for violation of an FRO, a primary consideration is the vindication of the authority of the court. One of the rationales for the New Jersey court adopting this position notwithstanding reconciliation between the parties is that by its very definition domestic violence is a recurring pattern of behavior—repetitive conduct which is controlling in nature. Longstanding victims of domestic violence have been conditioned, sometimes unconsciously, to heavy-handed, domineering behavior often accompanied by verbal intimidation and physical abuse.
So, in the event that there is reconciliation between the parties an application should be made to the court by the party in whose favor the FRO was issued to vacate the order. In this way, true “reconciliation” may take place, unencumbered by the potential for a criminal contempt court hearing.