Months ago when NFL running back Ray Rice was accused of domestic abuse and a video surfaced purportedly showing him dragging his then fiancee unconscious from an Atlantic City casino elevator, it was the prevailing view of most that Mr. Rice had knocked her out during some sort of altercation on that elevator. Indeed, Mr. Rice was charged with aggravated assault as a result of this incident. When the NFL subsequently suspended Mr. Rice for only two games as a result of this incident, a public and media uproar ensued whereby the NFL was accused of not taking domestic violence seriously. In response to this public uproar, the NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, admitted that he “didn’t get it right”, and instituted a Personal Conduct Policy whereby those found to have committed domestic violence would be subject to a suspension of 6 weeks without pay for the first offense, with a second offense resulting in banishment from the league. Most seemed satisfied with the NFL’s new get tough policy, and the uproar abated as the new football season approached. This calm was shattered when TMZ somehow obtained and posted on the internet video from the elevator’s surveillance camera purportedly showing the altercation involving Mr. Rice and his finacee and apparently substantiating that which most people already believed had occurred, i.e. that he had knocked her unconscious with a vicious punch to the head. The reaction was strong and immediate. It was one thing to hear or read reports of what happened. It was another to see the alleged act with one’s own eyes. The images were powerful. The response visceral. Mr. Rice was almost immediately released (fired) from his football team, the Baltimore Ravens. He was suspended by the NFL “indefinitely”. Domestic violence once again rose to the forefront of the national consciousness. Galvanized by the shocking nature of what was seen on that elevator video, the outcry was for a need to take stronger action against those who perpetrate domestic violence, and that anything which could be viewed as leniency should no longer be tolerated.
That domestic violence is a serious problem would be an understatement. Many consider it an epidemic. The toll it inflicts upon its victims and their families is substantial, physically and emotionally. What we saw on that elevator video would unquestionably qualify as domestic violence in the public’s eye. It clearly would have fallen within the NFL’s disciplinary policy as an act of domestic violence that involved “physical force.” However, as practitioners in this field, we know that the issues involving domestic violence are much more complicated.
In response to the firestorm following the release of the Rice elevator video, the prevailing attitude seemed to be that there should be a zero tolerance policy when it comes to those who commit domestic violence. However, what would constitute such “domestic violence”? Few, if any, would question that what was witnessed on that elevator video was an act of domestic violence. However, what if Mr. Rice had slapped his fiancee leaving a mark or bruise? What if he had pushed her, causing her to fall and sprain her wrist as he tried to exit the elevator? Under New Jersey law this might be considered an assault, constituting an act of domestic violence. Would they have been viewed as acts of domestic violence involving “physical force” so as to result in either the automatic 6 game suspension under the NFL’s previously enunciated personal conduct policy if not an indefinite suspension or outright ban for those now calling for a zero tolerance policy? Would the NFL’s reaction been the same? Would the public or media’s reaction have been the same?
Further, under New Jersey law, domestic violence would involve more than acts of “physical force”. Domestic violence is defined to include a list of 14 criminal predicate acts, ranging from homicide and assault to lewdness and harassment. N.J.S.A.2C:25-19 Some of these predicate acts involve “physical force” while many others to not. A violation of any could result in someone being found guilty of domestic violence. Indeed, there are many who would argue that non-physical forms of domestic violence or abuse are even more insidious and harmful. Victims subjected to constant threats, ongoing humiliation and degradation, isolation from family and friends, having your every action followed or monitored. The emotional or psychological harm to victims of such non-physical domestic violence is well documented. Its scars may be deeper than any slap or push. How would the NFL respond if one of their players was found guilty of having committed of this form of domestic violence? What would have been the public or media’s reaction?
Another reaction to the Rice elevator video was that the NFL and law enforcement’s initial response to same was little more than a slap on the wrist. Lawmakers called for an investigation of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s decision to offer PTI to Mr. Rice instead of prosecuting him. For many others, it reinforced their view that the original 2 game suspension given to Mr. Rice by NFL Commissioner Goodell was not only outrageous and inadequate, but led to calls for his resignation. They argued that Mr. Rice’s indefinite suspension, if not outright ban from the NFL, should have been imposed from the beginning. Statements of Mr. Rice’s now wife questioning the firestorm created by the video and the impact upon her husband’s career, job and livelihood were met with the derision of many who opined that her defense of her husband were emblematic of someone who was a battered spouse. That Mr. Rice lost his job or his livelihood as a result of what he did was deserved according to the attitude of many. However, not everyone accused of committing domestic violence is a celebrity or pubic figure warranting the attention of TMZ or the media in general. As family law practitioners, we know that those accused of committing domestic violence come from all walks of life. Many are involved in careers that are subject to codes of personal conduct or moral turpitude requirements, i.e. policemen, teachers, doctors, lawyers to name just a few. Whether representing the victim or the accused, we are often confronted with the reality of having to choose between having an adjudication of domestic violence with its attendant consequences, including a possible loss of job or career, versus attempting to resolve the issues short of same, generally in the form of an Order for Civil Restraints entered in another family court proceeding,. Given the visceral response following the release of the Rice elevator video, would resolving domestic violence matters in such a fashion be viewed as little more than a slap on the wrist? Should we now adopt a zero tolerance policy, require that all domestic violence matters be adjudicated, and let the chips fall where they may? How do you balance the goals of protecting the victims, punishing the perpetrators, and deterring future acts of domestic violence without, as some argue, victimizing the family again, this time financially? Should they?
There is no debate but that domestic violence is a serious societal problem and must be dealt with forcefully. However there is also no question that domestic violence is a complicated issue. If the Rice situation served as the impetus for a national debate to deal with the issue of domestic violence, it’s about time. However, we should use caution in allowing our visceral response to what we observed on that elevator video to determine the outcome of that debate.