Without the Intention to Harass, There Is No Harassment
By Snyder & Sarno on August 12, 2015
There are fourteen different acts that constitute domestic violence under N.J.S.A. § 2C:25-19(a). Domestic violence is often thought of as the use of physical force, but that is not always the case. Harassment is a form of domestic abuse that usually involves annoying or alarming conduct or communication, and though it can include physical violence, it frequently does not.
In M.F. v. S.A., a couple broke up after dating for about three years. A few months later, the ex-boyfriend contacted the ex-girlfriend on Facebook and via text messages, and she subsequently obtained a temporary restraining order against him. Of course, each party’s take on what transpired differs. The ex-girlfriend contended that the ex-boyfriend made terroristic threats to her, and she told him to stop contacting her or she would contact the police. On the other hand, the ex-boyfriend said that he contacted her to tell her how much he missed her and wanted to get back together with her.
The trial court found the testimony of both the ex-girlfriend and the ex-boyfriend to be credible. It found that the ex-boyfriend did not make terroristic threats, but it did believe that his behavior constituted harassment. Noting that the ex-boyfriend used “offensively coarse language” and that he “caused annoyance and alarm,” the court held that he harassed his ex-girlfriend “at inconvenient hours.” The court used those specific phrases in coming to its conclusion, since they come from the definition of harassment provided in N.J.S.A. § 2C:33-4(a). It felt that it had no choice but to grant a final restraining order against the ex-boyfriend.
When the ex-boyfriend appealed the trial court’s decision, he emphasized that he did not intend to harass his ex-girlfriend, another component of the statute. The appellate court agreed. While the trial court applied the relevant law, it did not make a specific finding that the purpose of the ex-boyfriend’s behavior was to harass the ex-girlfriend. Without a purpose to harass, his actions do not qualify as harassment.
Nasty conversations between the two parties, as well as between the ex-boyfriend and the ex-girlfriend’s father, were the main reason that the trial court found harassment in the ex-boyfriend’s behavior. However, the appellate court believed that the exhibits presented, as well as the Facebook messages and text messages, were insufficient to prove that the ex-boyfriend intended to harass. The appellate panel vacated the final restraining order against the ex-boyfriend. It sent the case back down to the trial court for a new hearing regarding the restraining order.
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