Being accused of domestic violence in New Jersey is incredibly serious. Regardless of your guilt or innocence, being charged with a domestic violence crime can disrupt your life, fracture your family, harm your reputation, and put your future plans at risk. If you have recently been accused of domestic violence in this state, chances are you're feeling fearful, uncertain, and overwhelmed about what to expect and how to prepare.
Fear not: the Lento Law Firm is here to help. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully defended many people in New Jersey against unfair domestic violence charges and/or excessive penalties, and his clients have much better odds for a more favorable outcome. Based on Mr. Lento's knowledge and experience, we have compiled the following information to answer your most pressing questions about domestic violence charges, what is at stake, and how to prepare for what lies ahead.
How does New Jersey define domestic violence?
The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991 (PDVA) establishes how New Jersey defines and penalizes domestic violence. In this state, domestic violence is effectively defined by your relationship to the alleged victim rather than the act itself. For example, if you were charged with burglarizing a stranger's home, the charge would simply be burglary; but if you broke into your ex's house and stole something, that act of burglary would be charged as a domestic violence crime.
What Constitutes a Domestic Violence Crime?
The PDVA distinguishes domestic violence crimes from other crimes based on who the victim is and your relationship with him/her. Basically, it's considered domestic violence if the alleged victim is related to you in any of the following ways:
- You are married
- You are separated
- You are divorced
- You are dating or have dated in the past
- You are living together
- You used to live together
- You have a child together or are expecting a child
The PDVA lists a number of crimes that may be tried as domestic violence when committed against a person who fits any of these descriptions. The list includes:
- Criminal restraint
- False imprisonment
- Terroristic threats
- Sexual assault/criminal sexual contact
- Criminal coercion
- Criminal mischief
- Criminal trespass
Can I be arrested and charged with domestic violence even if I never touched my partner?
Yes. As you can see from the list above, there are a significant number of crimes that are categorized as domestic violence that may not involve any physical contact with your partner. Some examples of how you could potentially face domestic violence charges without any physical contact:
- The alleged victim could accuse you falsely
- If you exchanged heated words and something you said was perceived as a threat
- If you tried multiple times to reach your partner and it was perceived as harassment or stalking
- If you entered your partner's home without permission and took something that you were disputing who owns it, that could be construed as domestic violence burglary
- If you sent your partner intimate photos or texts and she claimed it was lewdness
- If you came over to your partner's house when she told you not to, it could be construed as criminal trespass.
These are just a few examples of ways you could be charged with a crime without ever engaging in physical contact with your significant other: Bottom line: don't assume that you won't be charged with domestic violence even if you can prove you never touched the alleged victim.
Will I have to make bail to be released from jail if I am arrested for domestic violence?
Most likely not. Thanks to bail reform laws in New Jersey, bail requirements have been almost completely eliminated. However, depending on whether you are deemed a flight risk, you might not automatically be released on your own recognizance, either. The courts may impose certain conditions on your release to ensure you show up for trial. These may include any of the following:
- Your travel options may be restricted. You may not be able to leave the state without permission, for example.
- Restrictions on where and with whom you can socialize. If the courts believe certain associations may increase your chances of missing your court date or repeated instances of violence, you may be prohibited from going to certain establishments or meeting with certain people.
- You may be given a curfew.
- If you are currently employed, you may be prohibited from quitting your job (unless they opt to terminate your employment, which is a possibility).
- You may be prohibited from drinking alcohol or restricted on how much you're allowed to consume.
- You may be prohibited from carrying a firearm.
- You may be required to attend educational programs or receive treatment.
- You may be required to check in with a designated law enforcement agent.
- You may be released into the custody of another designated person.
How do the police handle a domestic violence call in New Jersey?
The police have a mandate to respond to domestic violence calls as quickly as possible. Once they are at the scene, the law requires them to follow specific protocols.
Once law enforcement receives and responds to a domestic violence call, their main priority under the law is ensuring the safety of the alleged victim first. This means that regardless of what actually happened, if the police see potential evidence of domestic violence, they will likely make an arrest first (in the interest of protecting victims) and get clarity on the facts later.
Here is the gist of what to expect if the police show up on a domestic violence call:
- They will give the alleged victim a Notice of Rights and inform the victim that they have the option of requesting a Temporary Restraining Order as well as filing a criminal complaint.
- They will investigate the scene—ask questions, observe evidence, look for signs of injury, etc.
- If they see probable cause that domestic violence took place, they will ask about the presence of weapons in the home. If there are any, they will seize them.
- If they see probable cause of domestic violence, observe signs of injury on the alleged victim, or discover that there is a pre-existing warrant or that a restraining order has been violated, they must make a mandatory arrest. In other words, they are required by law at that point to arrest someone, and they will arrest the person who appears most likely to be the perpetrator of the crime.
- The police may also make a discretionary arrest if the evidence at the scene is less convincing, but they still have probable cause to believe domestic violence took place.
If you are arrested for domestic violence but you believe the police strayed from these protocols in some way—or if you believe they violated your rights in the process of their investigation and conduct—talk to your attorney about it immediately as it could have a significant impact on your case.
What is a restraining order? How do restraining orders work in New Jersey?
A restraining order is a court order issued by a judge that forbids you from contact and/or communication with the alleged victim of domestic violence (i.e., your accuser). The two most common types of restraining orders in New Jersey are the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) and the Final Restraining Order (FRO). Here's how they work:
When an alleged victim makes an accusation of domestic violence, that person is given the option to file a complaint for a Temporary Restraining Order. (This is separate from any criminal charges you may face and will be handled separately.) A TRO may be issued immediately, solely on the word of the alleged victim (ex parte), and without hearing your side of the story.
When the judge issues the TRO, he/she will typically schedule a formal hearing within 10 days. (This hearing is separate from any court proceedings regarding your domestic violence charges.) At that point, both sides may present evidence and witnesses. If the judge is convinced the victim is still at risk, he/she will then grant a Final Restraining Order (FRO), which is permanent and indefinite. The only way for the FRO to be rescinded is to petition the court (typically if the alleged victim decides to have the FRO dismissed). If an FRO is sworn out against you, you will be photographed and fingerprinted and fined $500. You'll also lose your right to own a firearm.
What happens if I violate a restraining order? What if I just want to talk to my spouse/partner?
As uncomfortable and painful as it might be, it's in your best interests to obey a restraining order. Even if your intentions are to apologize or to try and “work it out” with your significant other, once the restraining order is in place, it's against the law to violate the terms. If you disobey the restraining order, you can be charged with a separate crime in addition to any other domestic violence charges—even if your spouse or partner is receptive to the idea. If you truly want the restraining order to be vacated, talk to your attorney about your options. Do not attempt to make contact on your own, as it could only make things worse for you.
Why is it wrong to violate the restraining order or to reconcile with my partner if both of us want it?
Because as soon as a domestic violence incident is reported, your dispute is no longer with your significant other; it is with the State of New Jersey. The restraining order is issued by the state to protect the alleged victim; it is not issued by the alleged victim herself. If you both change your mind and decide to ignore any restraining orders, you are still committing a crime, and the prosecutors can use that to solidify their case against you. Because the state is now involved in your dispute, it's no longer a private matter. You must resolve the matter with the state before you can reconcile.
What immediate repercussions could I face after a domestic violence arrest?
Whether or not you are ultimately charged with a crime, simply being arrested on suspicion of domestic violence can upend your life in numerous ways. For example:
- If you live with the alleged victim and they obtain a TRO against you, you will immediately lose access to your living situation.
- You may be separated from your children and denied access to them pending charges.
- Your family may be fractured and divided, especially if different factions take sides.
- You may lose your ability to go to work, or you may be fired from your job.
- You may face scrutiny and a tarnished reputation among friends and coworkers—even if you are innocent.
What are the penalties if I am convicted of domestic violence?
That depends on the specific type of domestic violence charge and its severity, as well as the judge/jury trying your case. In New Jersey, misdemeanor-level crimes are referred to as disorderly persons offenses, and felony crimes are called indictable offenses. Domestic violence crimes may be charged as either one. Examples of disorderly persons DV offenses might include harassment, stalking, or simple assault (one with minimal or no visible injury). Examples of more serious indictable offenses might include aggravated assault, kidnapping, sexual assault, or incidents that include the use of a deadly weapon.
If you are convicted of a disorderly persons (misdemeanor) domestic violence crime, you could face:
- Mandatory treatment/anger management
- Fines up to $500
- Jail time up to 6 months
If you are convicted of indictable (felony) domestic violence crime, the possible sentences depend on which degree of felony you're charged with:
- For fourth-degree offenses: up to 18 months in prison
- For third-degree offenses: 3 to 5 years in prison
- For second-degree offenses: 5 to 10 years in prison
- For first-degree offenses: up to 20 years in prison
What long-term challenges could I face after a domestic violence arrest or conviction?
Even after you have “paid your debt to society,” you could face ongoing issues in the wake of a domestic violence conviction in New Jersey. You might need to be prepared for any or all of the following:
- Permanent separation from your spouse/partner. If a Final Restraining Order (FRO) was issued against you, that order could stay in effect long after you've served your time—possibly forever, unless the victim has a change of heart and petitions the court to reverse it.
- Loss of custody/visitation of your kids. A domestic violence conviction can definitely be used against you in custody disputes.
- Restrictions on the types of jobs you can hold. If you were convicted of felony-level charges, you may be disqualified from holding certain types of jobs.
- Difficulty finding work or staying employed. Many employers conduct criminal background checks and will not hire you if you have a domestic violence conviction on your record.
- Difficulty enrolling in school. Some schools may deny you admission if you have a criminal record, especially one that involves domestic violence. You may also be denied certain types of financial aid to pay for school.
- Difficulty finding a home. Landlords routinely run background checks on prospective tenants, and some landlords won't rent to you if you have a domestic violence conviction on your record.
- Loss of your right to vote or own a weapon. If you were convicted of a felony-level domestic violence crime, you wouldn't be allowed to vote, own a firearm, or hunt.
Can I appeal my domestic violence conviction?
Yes, you can—but be aware of the odds. You have the legal right to appeal any adverse decision or conviction you don't agree with. In New Jersey, your attorney will submit your appeal to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court in your jurisdiction, and if you so desire it, to the State Supreme Court. However, be advised that the appeals courts do not re-try your case or hear new evidence. They simply review the case to look for errors that might have affected the outcome. Appeals can be very expensive, and verdicts are rarely overturned. Your attorney can give you clearer advice on whether you have sufficient reason to file an appeal.
What if I am not convicted of a crime? Will my arrest stay on my criminal record?
Yes. In New Jersey, being arrested and charged with a crime becomes a matter of public record. While it doesn't look as bad on your record as a conviction, you need to be aware that anyone who makes a decision about you based on your criminal background check may look unfavorably on you as a result. Simply being arrested for domestic violence can still affect your ability to get hired, go to school, get a loan, or rent an apartment or house.
Is it possible to get my record expunged?
Yes—depending on the situation. Most convictions will stay on your criminal record for life unless your attorney can convince the courts to overturn the conviction. If you were arrested for domestic violence and the charges were dropped, you may be eligible to have the arrest expunged from your record in five years—provided that you have no further arrests.
What if I want to reconcile with my partner/spouse?
In domestic violence situations in New Jersey, the alleged victim has the right to request that any charges be dropped if they decide they wish to attempt a reconciliation. That being said, the presence of any restraining order may still pose a hindrance. If your significant other has obtained a TRO or FRO against you, they will have to petition the court to rescind that order, and that decision is almost entirely at their discretion. If the restraining order forbids you even to communicate with the alleged victim, then you basically won't even be able to ask forgiveness; they will have to come to the decision to reconcile entirely on their own. If a petition is filed to reverse a restraining order, you may need to demonstrate to the court that you no longer pose a threat to the alleged victim's safety. For example, you may need to prove that you are attending anger management classes, seeking treatment for an addiction, or talking to a therapist.
Why do I need an attorney if I'm arrested for domestic violence?
Domestic violence is not a civil dispute in New Jersey; it is a crime. What's more, the criminal justice system in New Jersey skews heavily toward the victims of domestic violence, which means if you are accused of such a crime, you are likely coming into the process at a disadvantage even though the law technically states you are innocent until proven guilty. If you choose not to hire an attorney or decide to represent yourself, you are likely to be very nearly at the mercy of the courts, the prosecutors, and your accuser. The chances of being denied due process tend to go up considerably in such cases.
Another point to remember: Once you are arrested for and charged with domestic violence, your legal opponent is the State of New Jersey—not your significant other. Just as you would hire a defense attorney to represent you in any other type of criminal case, you should hire an attorney if you're accused of a domestic violence crime.
What should I do if the police want to question me at the police station?
We strongly advise that you do not answer any questions without your attorney present. Even if the police seem amicable and tell you they want to help, their job is at this point is to make a case against you. That means anything you say or do could be used against you at trial. There may be no basis for the accusations, but your words could still be construed as evidence. Calmly request that your attorney be present before you answer any questions, and ask to make contact with an attorney. Decline to answer any further questions until the police comply with your request.
What kind of attorney do I need?
By law, anyone who is licensed to practice law in New Jersey may serve as your legal counsel. However, not every lawyer has the training and experience to defend you against criminal charges. At the very least, you need to hire an attorney who focuses their practice specifically on criminal defense. Your best bet is to hire an attorney with specific experience and a good track record in domestic violence cases. The more experience your lawyer has with cases like yours, the better your chances for a more favorable outcome.
What are some common strategies to defend against New Jersey Domestic Violence Charges?
Even if the evidence is compelling, domestic violence is rarely considered an open-and-shut case. With a good attorney in your corner, especially one who understands domestic violence law and how to present the evidence, there are a number of strategies that can be very effective in defending against domestic violence charges. Every case is different, of course, and your attorney will need to investigate, review the circumstances, and gather evidence to determine the best defense strategy for you. Generally speaking, some of the most common defense strategies include the following:
- Self-defense. If you were acting in self-defense against attacks by the alleged victim, your attorney will investigate to discover evidence that the accuser “struck the first blow” and that you exerted reasonable force to protect yourself. For this defense to carry weight, your response to the alleged victim must have been reasonable force. (Example: If you shot the victim because she shoved you, that is not “reasonable force,” but if the victim sustained bruises as you tried to restrain her, that would be seen as reasonable force.
- False accusation. You assert that the alleged victim is falsely accusing you of a crime you did not commit. For this approach to work, your attorney must demonstrate that there is insufficient physical evidence to support the claim. If the accuser has signs of injury, the attorney may need to provide evidence that the injuries were self-inflicted.
- False identification. With this line of defense, you assert that the accuser may have been attacked, but you were not the person who did it. The best methods to support this defense are for your attorney to establish a viable alibi (i.e., evidence/witnesses that you were somewhere else at the time of the attack) and to prove you had no motive to commit the crime.
- It was an accident. In this scenario, you assert that the injury to the accuser was unintentional. For this defense to hold up in court, your attorney may need evidence to back your side of the story, including any forensic evidence and proving you had no motive to cause harm.
- Police error. This strategy makes the claim that the criminal charges against you are invalid because the police failed to follow proper protocols during their investigation and/or making an arrest, thereby tainting the conclusions of their investigation and denying you due process. Your attorney will investigate to provide evidence to back this claim.
- Burden of proof. Although domestic violence laws focus on protecting the victims, at the end of the day, you are still considered innocent until proven guilty, according to the law of the land. That means the burden of proof is on the prosecution. If the evidence against you is scant or skewed, your attorney may lean into that fact to emphasize that the charges against you cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Plea deal. If the evidence against you is abundant and compelling, your attorney may explore the option with you of negotiating a plea deal with the prosecution. Under a plea deal, you would plead guilty to a lesser offense in order to avoid trial, and in return, the prosecution would agree to a more lenient sentence. While this option results in a conviction, it can at least lessen the impact and disruption on your life if your attorney believes a criminal conviction is inevitable.
What can a good attorney do to help my case?
A skilled domestic violence defense attorney can greatly improve your chances for a more favorable outcome, whether it's an acquittal, a reduced sentence, or complete dismissal of the charges. A good attorney can do any/all of the following to help your case:
- Negotiate the best terms for your release pending trial
- Investigate the alleged incident and review the evidence
- Give you sound advice as to what is at stake and what your options are
- Work with you to decide on the defense strategy with the best odds of success
- Gather evidence and procure witnesses to bolster your defense
- Work with prosecutors and the judge to have charges reduced and/or dismissed
- Appeal a Final Restraining Order
- Petition to amend or vacate a Final Restraining Order
- Work to protect your custody/visitation rights
- Defend you during your trial (if the case makes it to trial)
- Coordinate an appeal if you are found guilty
In short, hiring an attorney is not just a formality in domestic violence cases. The right attorney can help you obtain a much better outcome than you might expect—even if the evidence against you looks particularly bleak.
How soon after my arrest should I contact a domestic violence defense attorney?
As soon as possible—preferably as soon as you arrive at the police station and they allow you to make a call. If they don't offer you the opportunity to call your attorney—ask them to do it, and refuse to answer any questions until they do so. The sooner you get an attorney involved in the case, the better your chances are for fair treatment, a fair trial, and a better outcome for your case.
Domestic Violence Attorney in New Jersey
It's amazing how someone's life can be upended in just a few minutes' time—how much a simple misunderstanding, a lapse in judgment, or a single bad decision can create a ripple effect in your life and the life of your family for many years to come. When it comes to charges of domestic violence, there's far too much at stake, too much that can go wrong, for you to risk your future by going into the trial process unprepared or represented by incompetent counsel. You need the best attorney possible in your corner—someone who understands the criminal justice process and how to position you for the best possible outcome.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has extensive experience and an outstanding track record defending those who are accused of domestic violence in New Jersey. He will work tirelessly and defend you aggressively to ensure your rights are protected and that you have every opportunity to put your life onto a better track. If you have been arrested on domestic violence charges, every minute counts. Get your defense strategy on track today. Call the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 to see how we can help.