The New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act provides two ways for victims to obtain relief and protection from domestic violence. Civil action may be taken to obtain a restraining order and criminal charges can be filed. Each form of relief is dealt with by a different court.
Municipal courts are considered courts of limited jurisdiction dealing with minor offences that occur within the boundaries of the Court’s municipality. The superior court deals with a full range of criminal, civil and family cases through their separate divisions.
Both temporary and final restraining orders are granted by the Family Division of the Superior Court. At times when the superior court is closed a plaintiff can contact police who will assist them to obtain a temporary restraining order, (TRO), from a municipal court judge.
Criminal charges for assault and other specific criminal actions related to domestic violence are usually heard in the municipal courts. If the criminal case is serious it may be transferred to the Superior Court, Criminal Division.
When a plaintiff applies for a restraining order they are interviewed by a domestic violence staff member of the Superior Court, Family Division. The interview is followed by a hearing before a domestic violence hearing officer or judge. The defendant is not notified of this hearing.
If a TRO is granted a final restraining order, (FRO), hearing will be scheduled within 10 days of the TRO and copies of the TRO will be sent to law enforcement authorities for personal service on the defendant.
A judge of the superior court will hear testimony from both parties during the FRO hearing. Parties can present documents and witnesses they want the court to consider in arriving at a decision. Attorneys are allowed but are not mandatory.
The judge will decide, on the preponderance of evidence, whether an act of domestic violence occurred, whether an FRO should be issued and what types of relief will be granted. If the FRO is issued the defendant will be photographed and fingerprinted and ordered to pay a penalty of between $50 and $500. They will also be prohibited from possessing weapons.
Both parties receive a copy of the FRO and a copy of the order is given to the police in the municipality where the plaintiff lives.
If the defendant does not appear at the final hearing the judge will either continue the temporary order until the defendant can be brought to court or will enter a final order if there is proof that the defendant was served the TRO. A law enforcement officer will serve the defendant with a copy of the final order.
If the plaintiff does not appear the court will attempt to contact them. If they cannot be located the TRO may be dismissed and the plaintiff will no longer have the protection granted by the order.
FROs do not expire but they can be withdrawn. The plaintiff must appear before a judge in the superior court to request a dismissal. Dismissal of an FRO does not result in criminal charges being dropped.
The plaintiff has at least a year from the time of the incident to decide whether they wish to file criminal charges with the police. The police can also file charges on their own and are required to do so when the plaintiff shows signs of injury or if a weapon was used.
When criminal charges are filed the defendant is either arrested or issued a summons to appear in court. Most municipal court cases are heard on the first appearance. The judge must ensure the defendant is advised of their rights before the opening of the trial.
When the defendant is before the court they can plead guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt the court will impose a penalty. Before sentencing the defendant is given the opportunity to make a statement.
If the defendant believes the facts do not support the judge’s decision or the judge’s decision does not follow the law they may appeal to the Superior Court, Law Division. The superior court reviews the transcript and evidence and makes a decision.
The New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act provides both civil and criminal remedies for victims of domestic violence. As each requires a different burden of proof and is dealt with by different courts it is possible for one incident to take twice the court time.