One of the primary requirements for a finding of domestic violence is that the party seeking a final restraining order must qualify as a “victim” as so defined under the New Jersey Domestic Violence Act. The Domestic Violence Act statute defines a “victim” as:
1) Any person who is 18 years or older; [and]
2) An emancipated minor who has been subjected to domestic violence by a spouse, former spouse, or any other person who is a present or former household member;
3) Any person, regardless of age, with whom the victim has a child in common, or with whom the victim anticipates having a child in common, if one of the parties is pregnant; and
4) Any person who has been subjected to domestic violence by a person with whom the victim has had a dating relationship.
At first blush then, the above appears to be pretty straightforward and lacking in nuance. In general terms, a “victim” is a dating partner, a spouse, or a family member. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that this statute allows for its own idiosyncratic tendencies. For instance—how is “former household member” defined? Does it mean that anyone who lived together for any length of time can file a restraining order against that “former household member?” Just how far does the Court’s discretion stretch? Although most people inherently view domestic violence as an issues involving romantic or formerly romantic individuals, can it be stretched to roommates, siblings, and parents and children?
Household Member/Former Household Member and Domestic Violence Victim
One of the primary considerations of the legislature and Court’s creating or implementing case-law, is whether the relationship allows for “power and control.” In cases such as Hamilton v. Ali, 350 N.J. Super. 479 (Ch. Div. 2001), for instance, college suite-mates were found to be “household members” for purposes of a domestic violence inquiry.
As for family members that no longer reside together, the Court’s have been directed to implement very fact-sensitive inquiries. For instance, while in Jutchenko v. Jutchenko 283 N.J. Super. 17 (App. Div. 1995) the Court held that the term “household member” did not apply to brothers who had not resided with each other for decades, in the recent seminal case of Coleman v. Romano, 388 N.J.Super. 342 (Ch. Div. 2006), the Court found there was a sufficient relationship between a mother and daughter who did not truly reside together for more than 30 years. The Coleman Decision provides Courts with several factors to consider in determining whether a relationship of former household members is sufficient to trigger “victim” status under the New Jersey Domestic Violence Act, which include: 1) the nature and duration of the prior relationship; 2) whether the past domestic relationship provides a special opportunity for abuse and controlling behavior; 3) the passage of time since the end of the relationship; 4) the extent and nature of any intervening contacts; 5) The nature of the precipitating incident, and 6) the likelihood of ongoing contact or relationship.
The Coleman Court notes in its decision that: “In weighing the above factors, a court should find that proof of a close and long-lasting relationship, as opposed to a short-lived and casual one, tends to support jurisdiction…if the past relationship provides no opportunity for violence, that would also weigh against jurisdiction….a short hiatus between the end of the relationship and the present incident favors the jurisdictional claim.”
I have found from personal experience that Court’s tend to be reluctant to dismiss claims on such “jurisdictional” arguments, but as an attorney representing a defendant, it is of course prudent to raise such claims for clients to preserve certain rights at an appeal. The Domestic Violence Act has, through the Legislature, been expanded since its inception, and cases like Coleman are likely judicial reactions to such expansion. It should also be noted that if a parent abuses a child under the age of 18, it is a “child abuse” case rather than domestic violence.
Victims of abuse from family members, household members, or former household members should know that like those in abusive romantic relationships, they might also be able to avail themselves of the state’s domestic violence law protections. Those that represent defendants in such matters should understand the relevant case law so that they can make the proper arguments and perhaps engage in a form of 104 hearing at the start of a domestic violence trial and to make such arguments to have the matter dismissed or to protect a possible appeal.
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