How Even an Accusation of Domestic Violence Can Impact Fundamental Rights

Our Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 et. seq., is designed to afford victims of domestic violence comprehensive protections. Although the fundamental goal of our domestic violence statute is to protect victims, there are certain penalties and loss of freedoms that the perpetrator faces in the process.  One of the most compelling loss of freedoms associated with the domestic violence statute is the seizure of firearms that occurs with the service on a defendant of a domestic violence restraining order.  If convicted of domestic violence, a defendant must forfeit his/her firearms and the right to buy any firearm in the future.

The far reaching implications of accusations of domestic Violence is illustrated by the an April 22, 2015 Appellate Division decision entitled, In Re Z.L., — N.J. Super. —- (App. Div. 2015).   In this matter, the applicant was denied a firearms purchaser identification card in 2013 due to his wife having filed a 1998 domestic violence complaint that was found not to have been substantiated, and due to the police being called to his home five times over an eight year period, ending in 2011.   N.J.S.A 2C: 58-3 specifically prohibits those convicted of a crime involving domestic violence or those against whom a civil restraining order is pending from possessing a firearm.

In this matter, the spouse argued that he was never convicted of a crime involving domestic violence nor was he ever found guilty of domestic violence in a civil proceeding. Hence he argued that there was no statutory impediment to his firearm application.  However, the trial court disagreed, finding that N.J.SA. 2C:58-3(c)(5) gave the Court broad latitude to deny a firearm purchase identification card where the court found that granting the card would be contrary to the public interest.  Here the court delved into the five times the police were called to the applicant’s home, which he characterized as nothing more than contretemps, as well as the 1998 domestic violence complaint where the applicant testified he “accidently struck” his wife.  The Court found that although the applicant did not fall into a specifically enumerated class of people excluded from firearms purchase, the catchall provision of N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c)(5) allowed the judge to scrutinize the occurrence of domestic violence activity and determine if the activity was of the nature where allowing the applicant to posses firearms was not in the public interest.  The trial court found the applicant’s conduct to be of such a nature where introducing firearms into the household would not promote the public’s interest and thus denied the applicant a firearm purchaser identification card, despite the fact that none of the 5 events from 2003 to 2011 resulted in the issuance of a temporary or final domestic violence restraining order or, for that matter a complaint for domestic violence.

The Appellate Division, in upholding the findings of the trial court, found that the court had the ability under the statute to deny the applicant a firearms purchase identification card based on a history of complaints by his wife, even if those complaints did not result in an adjudication of domestic violence, based on the state’s interest  in public health, safety and welfare.

An accusation of domestic violence has significant impact on the accused’s life where culpability is determined. However, it appears that even accusations can have far reaching impact on the accused’s fundamental rights.