Crimes of Domestic Violence: Domestic Assault
In our other Crimes of Domestic Violence case studies we looked at the offenses of harassment, false Imprisonment, criminal mischief, criminal trespass, and stalking, in the context of stories about two couples we introduced in “Faces of Domestic Violence,” Alicia and Carl, and Janice and Adam. This case study looks at the third couple from that post, John and Becky, and consider one more offense included in the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Act (NJPDVA), the crime of domestic assault.
When John moved into Becky’s apartment two years ago, Becky felt certain that she had found the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. John was usually soft-spoken and kind, and he went out of his way to be helpful and to make life easier for Becky. Unfortunately, however, John sometimes drinks to excess, and he seems to undergo a personality change under the influence of alcohol. He becomes loud and boisterous, and he sometimes starts arguments that seem pointless to Becky. Becky is especially sensitive to this kind of behavior, as her father was an alcoholic. Her mother eventually left her father, and Becky recently learned that John’s ex-wife also left him after he refused to get treatment for alcohol abuse. This new information increased Becky’s anxiety over John’s behavior. She started following him around the house whenever he began to drink, yelling at him and threatening to leave him. This only seemed to escalate John’s drinking, and on one occasion, he reacted to Becky’s yelling by pushing her out of his way, hard enough to cause her to fall to the floor and sustain multiple bruises.
The day after this incident John apologized profusely and promised to stop the excessive drinking. For a few weeks, he did stop; things went back to normal, and Becky tried to put the incident out of her mind. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, John was laid off from his job. Before long he was drinking again, and the arguments between the couple grew more frequent and more heated. During one argument, John slapped Becky across the face. Afterward, he broke down in tears; he told her that he was sorry, that he loved her, and that he felt useless without a job. He also told her that he constantly worries that she will walk out on him the same way his ex-wife did. He again promised to curtail his drinking, but this time the promise lasted only days.
Becky cannot understand how John can see that his behavior is terrible, but still not seem able to change it. She wants to believe that he will follow through on the next promise he makes, and she is afraid that things will only get worse for him if she leaves him now. She feels confused, depressed, and helpless to change their situation.
Recognizing Abuse and Taking Action
Problems with alcohol are notorious for creating or worsening situations involving domestic abuse. John is experiencing a loss of control over his drinking and his associated behaviors, along with feelings of guilt and self-loathing over this loss of control. Losing his job increased his feelings of powerlessness and aggravated the situation. Becky believed that by threatening to leave John, she could motivate him to regain control, but in fact, the thought of losing Becky only increased John’s stress and had the opposite effect. Becky has no idea what else to do, and she is experiencing her own feelings of powerlessness and depression. She is still deeply in love with the “real” John, and does not want to give up the hope of a happy future with him.
The kind of cycle that John and Becky have fallen into tends to be insidious. John needs help, and Becky needs to insist that he seek help, but ultimately only John can make the decision to do this. Meanwhile, Becky is the one at serious risk of physical harm. Without professional intervention, domestic violence tend to reoccur and often escalates. Becky may still have hope that John will be able to maintain sobriety and that things can turn around for them, but first she needs to attend to her own personal safety, and this means physically separating from John. A family therapist or a support group like Al Anon or SMART Recovery for Family & Friends could help Becky achieve some detachment and alleviate her anxiety. She may want to find a safe place to stay while she seeks initial help, but can she also insist that John leave the apartment? Let’s look at the applicable laws:
In the State of New Jersey, a person commits the disorderly persons offense of “simple assault” if he or she:
- Attempts to cause or purposely, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another;
- Negligently causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon; or
- Attempts by physical menace to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.
Domestic assault / simple assault is a more serious (fourth degree) offense if committed in the presence of a child under 16 at a school or community sponsored youth sports event, or if perpetrated upon an institutionalized elderly person by an employee of the institution (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1c).
Simple assault becomes “aggravated assault” when directed toward individuals engaged in certain types of public or health and safety occupations specifically listed in the statute, or when committed under certain aggravating circumstances, such as while fleeing the scene of a crime (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b(5)-(11)).
Aggravated assault is a second, third, or fourth degree offense, depending on the circumstances. A person commits aggravated assault if he or she:
- Attempts to cause significant or serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury purposely or knowingly or under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life recklessly causes such injury; or
- Attempts to cause or purposely or knowingly causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon; or
- Recklessly causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon; or
- Knowingly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life points a firearm at or in the direction of another, whether or not the actor believes it to be loaded.
N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1b (1)-(4).
Assault can also be committed by a motor vehicle (including a water vessel), in which case it would be a second, third or fourth degree offense, depending on the circumstances (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1c).
John pushed Becky hard enough to cause her to fall to the floor and sustain bodily injury, though fortunately her injuries were minor. This was domestic assault. While he did not intend to hurt her, he probably acted recklessly, thereby committing the crime of simple assault. When he slapped her in the face, causing her physical pain, he committed simple assault again. Under New Jersey law physical (but not emotional) pain is sufficient to qualify as “bodily injury” even if the assault does not leave a mark.
New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act
When most people think of domestic violence, the first thing that comes to mind is physical violence. Physical violence is one of the most extreme manifestations of domestic abuse, and even the most minor domestic assault can be a basis for relief under the NJPDVA. Becky can obtain a restraining order against John. Even if he is on the lease with her, she can request exclusive possession of the residence as part of her application for a restraining order. A family law attorney can help Becky determine more specifically what her remedies would be under the Act.
If you have concerns about abusive behavior in an intimate or household relationship, we can help. Please contact us for an initial attorney consultation.