During the past half century or so, the subject of domestic violence has evolved from a laughing matter to a deadly serious societal concern.
One of television’s most popular early shows was The Honeymooners, a staple of the mid-1950s, which starred Jackie Gleason as the oft-frustrated Ralph Kramden. As the live television audience responded with gales of laughter, Kramden would routinely threaten his wife, Alice, with bodily harm, mimicking a punch to the face while exclaiming, “One of these days, Alice……POW, right in the kisser!”
We know better today. Domestic violence isn’t funny at all; rather, it’s a serious problem that affects relationships across virtually all societal and economic groupings.
Victims of domestic violence are often presented with two independent legal options, but they have vastly different focal points. While these two options are not mutually-exclusive, meaning that victims can pursue either or both, they lead to dramatically different results.
The first option is a restraining order which, if granted by a judge, prevents the aggressor from any future contact with the victim. Restraining orders are heard as part of a civil proceeding in the Superior Court, first as a temporary restraint, entered based on the convincing testimony of only the victim. Then a judge without a jury decides whether to grant the restraining order following a trial to determine whether the victim requires a restraining order for reasons of future personal safety after both parties are given the opportunity to testify and be cross-examined by the other or the other’s attorney.
The other option is filing a criminal charge such as assault or harassment against the aggressor in the municipal court. If convicted by a judge (again without a jury), the aggressor faces fines, surcharges and even potential incarceration.
But there’s an even more basic difference between these two potential remedies, and it boils down to one word: CONTROL.
In the civil proceeding (aimed at securing a protective restraining order), the victim has complete control over the process. He or she can pursue the restraining order or, alternatively, decide to drop it. The decision is totally up to the victim, since the case is captioned as “Victim v. Aggressor.”
Not so in municipal court. Once the charge is filed, the case is captioned as “State of New Jersey vs. Aggressor.” The charge can then be dropped only with the consent of the prosecutor. Years ago, the prosecutor almost always did what the victim wanted, meaning the case was dropped or pursued, depending on the victim’s discretion. However, as society became more concerned with repeat domestic violence offenders, the judgment of the victim gave way to an approach that encouraged prosecution of domestic violence cases even when the victim had a change of heart.
This becomes especially problematic when one realizes that punishing the aggressor in municipal court often adversely affects the victim as well. More often than not, a conviction for a domestic violence-related offense in municipal court results in a fine against the aggressor. But when the aggressor is the spouse of the victim, and they share bank accounts, a fine against one party affects the other in equal measure.
In addition, a conviction leaves the aggressor with a permanent record as a domestic abuser, which can result in a loss of immediate employment or of a future employment opportunity. In a situation where the victim and aggressor remain in a relationship, the aggressor’s employment limitations going forward may also affect the economic welfare of the victim.
Thus, the decision by the victim as to whether to file a criminal charge against the aggressor in a domestic violence should not be taken lightly. Once filed, the victim no longer controls the process. Legal advice, for both the victim and aggressor, is readily available and should be strongly considered in domestic violence situations.