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Destruction of Jointly Owned Marital Property Constitutes “Criminal Mischief” Supporting a Finding of Domestic Violence

It is well known that when an unmarried individual destroys property that belongs to someone else that can be a predicate under New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA). However, the waters become muddy when a spouse destroys marital property as “property, both real and personal” is part of the marital estate. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. Therefore, marital property is considered to be jointly owned by spouses. Which begs the question: If a spouse destroys jointly owned property, is the spouse guilty of criminal mischief for destroying what is his/her own property?

The New Jersey Appellate Division answered this question in the affirmative in the N.T.B. v. D.D.B., A-4542-13T2 (App.Div. Sept. 9, 2015). In the aforementioned case, the husband during the first incident destroyed speakers that were in the wife’s bedroom by pouring juice on them, and then he proceeded to throw them in the toilet, after his wife refused to lower the volume of the music. During the second incident, the husband used his body to open the door to the wife’s bedroom when he discovered it was locked with the wife and their daughter inside the bedroom. The husband slammed his body into the wife’s bedroom door causing the frame to splinter. The marital home was jointly owned and purchased after the parties married. Thereafter, both parties obtained temporary restraining orders against the other.

The PDVA contains several predicate acts that constitute domestic violence, one of which is criminal mischief as defined by N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3(a). N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(a) (10). Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3(a)(1), an individual is guilty of criminal mischief if he or she “[p]urposely or knowingly damages tangible property of another.” Based on this statute, the trial court found that the husband had not destroyed the “property of another” because both the speakers and the bedroom door were within the marital home that the parties shared and, therefore, were not the property of another.

The Appellate Division disagreed with the trial court, finding that a spouse can be guilty of criminal mischief for destroying property that he or she partly owns. The Appellate Court looked to the model jury charge for criminal mischief, which instructs trial judges, “[w]here appropriate, [to] charge that property of another includes property partly owned by defendant in which any other person has an interest which defendant is not privileged to infringe.” Thus, the wife’s bedroom door and speakers, although located in the marital home, were the “property of another” within the meaning the statute. Therefore, the husband’s conduct constituted criminal mischief and supported a finding of domestic violence.