Until recently, it was unclear whether the destruction of marital property could be considered a predicate act for criminal mischief, the intentional act of causing damage to another person's property. The obvious issue here is that a person is damaging property he or she jointly owns, while the state's criminal mischief laws focus on property owned by another person. The issue is increasingly complicated in the context of family law, where criminal mischief may be a factor in an abusive relationship. In that case, destruction of marital property may also be seen as an act of domestic violence, since the act is being perpetrated on the property of one's intimate partner.
Although the New Jersey Appellate Division issued a ruling on marital property destruction two years ago, many spouses are still shocked to discover that they are being charged with domestic violence over items they own. Even more shocking is the fact that no one got hurt. Surely, one can't be accused of domestic violence for “assaulting” the furniture or television set? Well, that depends on one's definition of domestic violence, which in the legal sense, encompasses far more than physical and sexual assault. Many forms of domestic violence are psychological or financial, or a combination of both as in the case of economic abuse. This is a newer recognized form of abuse in which a spouse asserts control over, or prevents the other spouse from leaving, by having complete control over the marital finances.
Even so, destroying a few jointly owned items doesn't seem quite as insidious to most people as cutting off one's access to the marital funds. Regardless of personal opinion, New Jersey is very progressive in its prevention of domestic violence laws. New Jersey courts have traditionally extended protection to a wide array of victims for all kinds of circumstances, including destruction of property. While each case has to be individually examined, the 2015 case of N.T.B v. D.D.B established that the destruction of jointly owned marital property may constitute criminal mischief under the state's domestic violence laws. In N.T.B., the two parties were both seeking final restraining orders against each other, after N.T.B. destroyed a bedroom door and a set of speakers in their home. The trial court ruled that criminal mischief does not apply to one's own property, and denied D.D.B's FRO request based on predicate acts of criminal mischief and harassment.
The Appellate Division overturned this ruling, stating that N.T.B. infringed upon his wife's interest in the property, which should be construed as criminal mischief. It was therefore ruled as a predicate act of criminal mischief, which should be examined as possible grounds for a restraining order under NJ's Prevention of Domestic Violence laws. As you can see, domestic violence is a complex legal concept that may or may not be viewed as a criminal offense. For more information on the your domestic violence rights and legal options, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.