If you are in a troubled relationship, you may be wondering where to draw the line between behavior that is just annoying and behavior that is emotionally or psychologically abusive. And if you are pretty sure the line has already been crossed, you may be wondering whether or not the abusive behavior is actionable in court. Is it criminal? Can you get a restraining order? The following domestic violence case study that focuses on harassment and false imprisonment may help.
In New Jersey, if behavior amounts to one of the offenses listed in the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (NJPDVA), then the answer to both questions is “yes.” The NJPDVA lists fourteen specific crimes:
- Criminal sexual contact
- Terroristic threats
- Criminal mischief
- Criminal restraint
- Criminal trespass
- False imprisonment
- Sexual assault
Harrassment & False Imprisonment Case Study
In this case study, we are going to look at two of these crimes—“harassment” and “false imprisonment,” in the context of a story about a couple we introduced in our blog “Faces of Domestic Violence”—Alicia and Carl.
Carl had never been physically violent, but over a period of years he began to demonstrate a pattern of increasingly domineering behavior. At first Alicia found his “take charge” attitude attractive. She was flattered by his attention and liked the fact that he wanted to provide for her. She knew he had a tendency to be critical and jealous of her time, but she put up with these things by rationalizing that everyone has their flaws.
Over time however, Carl’s domineering behavior increased. He began to order Alicia to stay home in the evenings, even though he himself often came home late from work. Even when she went out grocery shopping, he would complain if she was gone for more than an hour. Alicia wanted to get a part-time job after both of their kids were in school full time, but Carl protested, telling her she needed to stay home and take care of the house.
Alicia felt increasingly isolated. Soon her only social outlet was talking to her sister on the phone, and it wasn’t long before Carl was even complaining about that. By this time, his tendency to criticize had turned into flagrant verbal abuse. He often called Alicia “worthless,” “stupid,” “a bitch,” and even worse. He began to take her car keys with him when he left the house. Once after an argument, he barricaded Alicia into the bedroom for nearly an hour by pushing a heavy chest against the door.
Recognizing Abuse and Taking Action
When a pattern of abuse develops slowly over time, it can be hard for someone at the center of the process to see clearly what is happening. Both victim and perpetrator may be acting out family patterns learned in dysfunctional homes. Personal feelings of insecurity or depression can intensify such patterns. If both people involved become aware of the signs early enough, family and individual therapy can sometimes turn a situation around. However, once things reach the point where one partner is “ordering” the other to behave in a certain way, or is preventing the other from doing things that every person has a right to do, the victim needs to prioritize personal safety and mental health above all else.
Alicia’s sister has been urging her to seek help for quite some time, but Alicia is having difficulty taking action. This is partly due to a loss of self-esteem created by Carl’s behavior, and partly due to the fact that Alicia and her children are financially dependent on Carl. She needs to understand, however, that without professional help, patterns of control often continue to escalate. Carl’s behavior has already injured Alicia emotionally, and it now poses a high risk of progression to physical violence. Alicia could get some emotional and psychological support from a family therapist, but she also needs to take legal action. Let’s look at the applicable laws:
“Harassment” is subjecting a person to persistent or unwanted and annoying actions, including threats or demands. Under New Jersey law a person commits the “petty disorderly persons offense” of harassment, “if, with purpose to harass another,” the person:
- Makes, or causes to be made, a communication or communications anonymously or at extremely inconvenient hours, or in offensively coarse language, or any other manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm;
- Subjects another to striking, kicking, shoving, or other offensive touching, or threatens to do so; or
- Engages in any other course of alarming conduct or of repeatedly committed acts with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy such other person.
Harassing communications are considered to be made either where they originate or where they are received. So, for example, a phone call made in one time zone at 8 p.m. would be at an “extremely inconvenient hour” if it is received in another time zone at 3 a.m. Harassment becomes a more serious (fourth degree) offense if committed while in prison or on parole or probation for another crime (N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(a-e)).
Carl’s overall pattern of behavior constitutes harassment. He communicates with Alicia in “offensively coarse language” and in a way “likely to cause annoyance or alarm.” Some of his other conduct, such as taking her car keys and barricading her into the bedroom, is also alarming and is clearly intended to intimidate her into complying with his demands.
Under New Jersey law, a person commits the “disorderly persons offense” of false imprisonment if the person “knowingly restrains another unlawfully so as to interfere substantially with his liberty.” (N.J.S.A. 2C:13-3). There are some defenses to false imprisonment, but they do not apply in this case. For example, if the person restrained is under 18 and the actor was a relative or legal guardian intending only to control the child, this may be a defense.
Carl committed the offense of false imprisonment when he barricaded Alicia into the bedroom. He may also have committed false imprisonment through other actions, such as taking her car keys in order to prevent her from leaving the house.
New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act
Both “harassment” and “false imprisonment” are crimes in New Jersey. Ordinarily, however, they are minor crimes, and the attached criminal penalties are not likely to be severe. For someone in a domestic relationship with the perpetrator of this type of a crime, it may be more significant that the crime is included within the NJDPVA, entitling the victim to all the protections of that Act, including obtaining a restraining order against the perpetrator and other civil relief. Alicia needs to file forms detailing every instance of Carl’s controlling behavior. As part of her complaint she can request temporary possession of the family home and appropriate personal property (such as a car), temporary child custody, and temporary spousal and child support. She can also ask the court to order Carl to participate in anger management therapy and can request a risk assessment to determine whether Carl’s behavior poses any risk to their children. A family law attorney can help Alicia determine more specifically what her remedies would be under the Act.
Would you be able to recognize the other offenses included in the NJPDVA? Read our other “Crimes of Domestic Violence” case studies where we will discuss the common offenses of assault, “criminal trespass,” criminal mischief” and “stalking.”
If you have concerns about abusive behavior in an intimate or household relationship, we can help. Please contact us for a free attorney consultation.