Criminal mischief is the act of knowingly damaging one's property, or causing damage to someone's property through recklessness or negligence. The key concept of the law is that the property in question belongs to someone else, thus damaging your own property is not a crime. There is, however, an exception for marital properties are jointly owned by both spouses. This is a confusing concept because most people assume that marital properties are jointly owned. The truth is, many marital properties such as bank accounts, automobiles and retirement plans, are owned by one spouse only. The other spouse still has a right to receive a portion of these properties based on factors such as the length of the marriage, and his or her contributions towards increasing the property's value.
In that case, what makes a marital property jointly owned? Well, a common example in most marriages is the marital home, which many couples buy together right before or after the marriage. If one of the spouses already owns a home, he or she can also transmute the home from a separate to marital property by changing the ownership to a joint tenancy. As a jointly owned property, the home and everything in it, from the furnishings to the appliances are owned equally by both spouses. This logic may lead you to believe that the destruction of a jointly owned home is not a crime, since one cannot be penalized for destroying one's own property.
Unfortunately, the family courts place heavier emphasis on the fact that the property is co-owned, thus you are committing a crime against the co-owner by destroying it. This interpretation can be seen in the 2015 case N.T.B v. D.D.B. The case involved a husband and wife who were embroiled in a contentious divorce with accusations of domestic violence. Among these accusations was an incident in which the husband destroyed the wife's audio speakers, then smashed through the bedroom door when the wife refused to let him in. The wife filed criminal charges against the husband, citing harassment and criminal mischief, which are both forms of domestic violence under New Jersey laws. The husband countered that he did not commit criminal mischief on his wife's property as he was the co-owner of said property.
The trial judge agreed with the husband, but the Appellate Division ruled in favor of the wife, stating that “each co-tenant has a separate and distinct freehold title and each holds his or her title and interest independently of the others.” In essence, the Appellate Division believed that the husband's destruction of the speakers and bedroom door destroyed the wife's interest in the properties, which falls under the definition of criminal mischief. This case is a perfect example of the fine line between civil and criminal issues in a contentious divorce. For more information on domestic violence, criminal mischief, or any other legal issues pertaining to your divorce, please speak with the family law attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.