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Although evidence offered by a putative victim may suffice to meet the definition of harassment, courts must be careful not to overlook the statutory requirement that there be a finding that relief is necessary to prevent further abuse. N.J.S.A. § 2C:25-29(b). Merely concluding that a plaintiff has described acts that qualify as harassment and omitting that added inquiry opens the door to potential abuse of the important purposes that New Jersey's Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. §§ 2C:25-17 to 2C:25-35, is designed to serve and threatens to trivialize the plight of true victims, in the process.
The parties had been involved in a long-term relationship and shared two children. When they ended the relationship, J.D. remained in the house they had shared with the children. Part of the complaint for harassment involved M.D.F. allegedly passing by the house and taking photographs, which he indicated were to obtain evidence that J.D.’s new boyfriend was staying at the house. Based on J.D.'s complaint, a Temporary Restraining Order was issued. The trial court then granted a Final Restraining Order (FRO) against M.D.F. The Appellate Division affirmed. The panel rejected M.D.F.'s arguments that the trial court incorrectly found harassment, permitted testimony about facts not included in the complaint, denied him the right to defend himself, and failed to create a complete record for review. The panel also rejected M.D.F.'s claim that he was found not guilty of harassment in a Municipal Court proceeding and therefore could not be found guilty of harassment under the Act. The Supreme Court granted M.D.F.'s petition for certification.
Were the due process rights of M.D.F. violated during proceedings that resulted in a Final Restraining Order under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35?
The Court held that the trial court failed to sufficiently articulate its findings and conclusions of harassment under either N.J.S.A. § 2C:33-4(a) or (c). The Court further found that the record contained insufficient evidence to sustain the determination to enter a final restraining order and that the trial court should have considered the implication that M.D.F. was preparing a motion for a custody change based on J.D.’s cohabitation and that such a motion was filed within hours of the incident. Additionally, by allowing J.D. to expand upon the alleged prior incidents not cited in the complaint, M.D.F.’s due process rights were violated and an adjournment should have been granted to M.D.F.