Domestic Violence Case Study: Criminal Mischief, Trespass & Stalking
Crimes of Domestic Violence: Stalking
In Part I of “Crimes of Domestic Violence” we looked at the offenses of harassment and false Imprisonment in the context of the story of Alicia and Carl, a couple we introduced in “Faces of Domestic Violence.” This case study looks at another couple from that post, Janice and Adam, and consider three additional crimes included in the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Act (NJPDVA), criminal mischief, criminal trespass, and stalking.
Janice is having trouble accepting her break-up with boyfriend Adam. Adam ended their romance about six months ago because Janice wanted them to spend all their spare time together and was pressuring Adam to move in with her. Adam found that he could no longer spend time with friends on his own or engage in any activities that did not involve Janice. Although he loved Janice and tried repeatedly to work things out with her, he eventually told her that he needed to “take a break.” Janice was inconsolable and began to call him daily, crying and begging him to reconsider. She often called after midnight, and when Adam asked her to stop this, she did not stop but instead began leaving increasingly angry messages. She went to Adam’s house uninvited multiple times, twice entering through an unlocked backdoor and waiting for him to come home. Recently, Adam found a long deep scratch along the side of his car, and his friend Chris reported spotting Janice lurking near Adam’s car during the time that the vandalism must have happened. Chris advised Adam to report the matter to the police, but Adam has not yet taken any action because he feels sorry for Janice and guilty for hurting her.
Before the incident with his car, Adam believed that Janice’s behavior was annoying but not unusual for someone suffering through the aftermath of a break-up. He wanted to help Janice and was even considering reconciling with her because she was so obviously deeply attached to him. Now, however, the increasingly angry phone messages and the vandalism have him seriously concerned.
Recognizing Abuse and Taking Action
Like Alicia in our previous story, Adam had trouble recognizing abusive behavior because it developed slowly over time and came from a person he cared for deeply. Janice’s behavior, both during and after her romantic relationship with Adam, reveals that she probably struggles with feelings of deep insecurity and inadequacy. While Adam feels protective of Janice and wants to help her rather than get her into more trouble, her increasing aggressiveness is cause for alarm. If Adam is close to anyone else that he believes Janice might listen to, he may want to urge that person to talk to Janice about seeking therapy. Adam himself, however, cannot be the one to help her and instead needs to focus on his own safety. Let’s look at the applicable laws:
In New Jersey, a person commits the offense of “criminal mischief” when the person “purposely or knowingly damages tangible property of another. . . .” (N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3a(1)). Criminal mischief is a crime that increases in degree depending on the circumstances and the monetary amount of the damages (N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3). If the vandalism to Adam’s car costs him less than $500 to repair, the act was a disorderly persons offense. If it costs between $500 and $2,000, it becomes a fourth degree offense. (N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3b(2)). If, in fact, Janice is the culprit in the vandalism, she has committed criminal mischief.
A person commits the fourth degree New Jersey offense of “criminal trespass” by entering or surreptitiously remaining in a dwelling (or certain other locations specified by statute) knowing that he or she doesn’t have a right to do so ((N.J.S.A. 2C:18-3a). Whether or not Janice committed criminal trespass depends partially on whether or not she reasonably thought that it was alright with Adam for her to come into his home uninvited and wait for him. It can be a defense if a person reasonably believes that a homeowner would have allowed the entry or would have allowed the person to remain on the premises (N.J.S.A. 2C:18-3d(3)).
A person commits the fourth degree New Jersey offense of stalking if he or she purposefully or knowingly directs at a specific person a “course of conduct” that would cause a reasonable person to feel unsafe or suffer other significant mental or emotional distress. “Course of conduct” is defined to include repeatedly (meaning on two or more occasions):
- maintaining a visual or physical proximity to a person;
- directly, indirectly, or through third parties, by any action, method, device, or means, following, monitoring, observing, surveilling, threatening, or communicating to or about, a person, or interfering with a person’s property;
- repeatedly harassing a person, or
- repeatedly conveying or causing to be conveyed verbal, written, or other types of threats directed at or toward a person.
The degree of the offense increases under certain circumstances. For example, the offense rises to a third degree crime if the behavior is already prohibited by an existing court order (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10(1)(c)).
Unlike other crimes included in the NJPDVA, a conviction for stalking automatically operates as an application for a permanent restraining order by the victim (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-10.1).
Janice’s actions fit this profile. She may also be committing the separate offense of “harassment,” which we examined in Part I of this series, by repeatedly calling Adam late at night and leaving him angry messages. Adam is not currently afraid of Janice, but would it be reasonable if he were? The more she persists in her current pattern of behavior, the more reasonable it would be, and the more likely it is that Adam will experience significant emotional distress.
Adam needs to tell Janice very clearly that the late night phone calls must stop and that she is not to enter his home again. He should also start locking his doors and consider changing his locks. Even though he does not want to cause Janice more trouble, for his own protection he needs to file a police report about the vandalism to his car. He also needs to start documenting all of Janice’s other actions, as he will need this evidence if he does decide to pursue further legal action.
New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act
“Criminal mischief,” criminal trespass,” “stalking,” and “harassment” are crimes in New Jersey and are all included within the NJDPVA, entitling a victim to obtain a restraining order against a perpetrator and other civil relief. At this point Adam does not want to take legal action, but he could request a restraining order against Janice if he changes his mind. A family law attorney could help him determine more specifically what his remedies would be under the Act.
In Part III of “Crimes of Domestic Violence,” we will discuss the New Jersey crime of domestic “assault.”
If you have concerns about abusive behavior in an intimate or household relationship, we can help. Please contact us for a free attorney consultation.