A New Jersey trial court judge violated a defendant's right to due process in a recent domestic violence case.
Two people dated on and off from June 2012 to June 2014. In June 2014, the defendant sent the victim "six or seven ranting text messages" that called her names and suggested that he was going to post private videos of her online. During the trial, the judge asked him if he "dispute[d] that [he] had this conversation and these e-mails where [he] threatened to expose her to the world." He admitted that he "was very hurt, and [he] said things [he] didn't mean . . . ." Right after this testimony, the judge abruptly said "that's where you cross the line" and found that the defendant's statement was an admission to criminal harassment, ending the hearing. As the judge was reading the final restraining order, the ex-boyfriend tried to talk, but wasn't allowed to.
On appeal, the ex-boyfriend challenged the "sufficiency of proofs on which the trial judge relied to enter the final restraining order against him and claimed that his due process rights requiring a fair opportunity to be heard and to defend himself against plaintiff's claims were violated." The Appeals Court said that the trial court judge had to first decide if the victim proved with credible evidence that criminal harassment had occurred. She didn't. Her evidence consisted of her general statement that she got the text messages, but she did not provide details about when she got them, or give any evidence that the ex-boyfriend intended to harass her. Also, "defendant's statements were not an admission of the conduct and he specifically denied an intent to harass."
The higher court also decided that not only did the trial judge's abrupt ending restrict both sides from presenting more evidence, it also denied the defendant due process. How? The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution requires "procedural safeguards including the right to cross-examine adverse witnesses and the right to call witnesses." The way the judge handled this hearing and abruptly ended it denied the ex-boyfriend the chance to respond to the ex-girlfriend's charges - and he was never allowed to present his own evidence to defend himself. For these reasons, the Appellate Court reversed the judge's decision, voided the final restraining order and sent the case for a new trial before a different judge.
This is an important decision and a significant reminder that every person should be afforded their rights. Since many people who go to court may not have a lawyer and are not familiar with court proceedings, it is important that judges take the time to "sift through their testimony [with] a high degree of patience and care" and to always remember that "the rights of the parties to a full and fair hearing are paramount." With the collaboration of Kieu-Nhi Le, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016. She is the Managing Business Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal.