Restraining orders protect domestic violence victims by prohibiting their abusers from contacting or communicating with them. Violating a restraining order is a serious offense, punishable by a fine of up to $25,000 and a jail sentence of up to 18 months. One of the more confusing aspects of restraining orders is the definition of terms like "communication", which can include a variety of behaviors. Phone calls, emails and texts, for example, are all communication methods which can be harassing or threatening. But what about video recording someone, perhaps by accident while you were recording something else? The act of filming, in itself, is not a manner of communication. However, a sort of communication does occur between the one filming and the subject of the film. The communication takes on a darker meaning when it's between an abuser and a former victim. Regardless of the abuser's actual intent, a victim can be made to feel menaced by being the center of his or her focus.
Still, would such logic apply in a court of law? The New Jersey family courts dealt with this issue in the 2015 case of State v. D.G.M. The defendant in this case had a final restraining order against him by his former partner, with whom he shared a son. The restraining order had been amended so that the defendant could attend his son's soccer games. At one game, the victim noticed the defendant filming her, which he admitted he did by accident. He turned the camera away when she saw him, but after briefly filming some action on the field, he turned the camera back to her. It was determined that he filmed her for about 5 seconds or so, which was unnerving to the victim.
The question for the courts was whether this behavior counts as "commuication" in the context of a restraining order. That would require an examination into the specific nature of the behavior, and the message that it conveys to the victim. This was the focus of the Appellate Division's ruling, although they ultimately decided to reverse the defendant's conviction by the trial court. They determined that "A defendant's mere act of filming or even simply staring at a victim send a message and, in many instances, a message sufficiently alarming or annoying, or even threatening..." They believed this type of behavior qualifies as an act of harassment under the state's domestic violence prevention laws. What they stressed was the intentional filming of the victim (when he filmed her the second time), as brief as it was. Having said that, the appeals court still used their discretion to overturn the contempt conviction with "fair warning... of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed." As you can see, the NJ courts are very proactive when it comes to protecting the rights of domestic violence victims. For more information on restraining orders, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.