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Difference Between Domestic Contretemps and Domestic Violence

Published: November 30, 2023

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Definition of Domestic Contretemps under New Jersey Law

domestic contretemps and domestic violence difference in NJMost people recognize domestic violence as beyond ordinary disagreements, typically involving violence. As the term suggests, there is a certain level of violence that raises someone’s actions to the level of domestic violence, whether it be physical, emotional, or psychological. But ordinary arguments, disagreements, and bickering are what many people in intimate relationships experience, defined as domestic contretemps. Families, couples, and roommates fight. However, they do not necessarily set out to control others with patterns of abuse that degrade, diminish, and destroy another’s confidence, security, and well-being.

How are Domestic Contretemps Different from Domestic Violence?

Sometimes, the distinction between behavior warranting protection from a court and mere squabbling or sparring. The basis for domestic violence is in New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, which lists the crimes constituting domestic violence. One of the predicate acts of domestic violence is harassment, defined in N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4. Harassment includes alarming communications to disturb another by the content or timing of the communication, for example, in the middle of the night. It also includes violent behavior, such as strikes, kicks, shoves, other offensive touches, threats, or other actions calculated to alarm or annoy someone.

When couples divorce, tempers naturally flare, and regrettable words or actions become the subject of restraining orders. However, there is a line one crosses that courts recognize as domestic violence rather than contretemps. Sometimes, that line is unclear, and judges take a broad or narrow view of facts constituting abuse versus contretemps. Each situation is distinct, and the facts determine the outcome.

Relationship Between Domestic Contretemps and Restraining Orders in NJ

When any crime constituting domestic violence, supports a restraining order, a family court, after reviewing the facts, decides someone needs protection from another’s harmful behavior. Restraining orders seek to prevent domestic violence and protect those with legitimate concerns for their safety. Thus, a judge must look to the facts to justify the alleged victim’s fear based on another’s actions and whether those actions amount to domestic violence or merely contretemps.

Can Domestic Contretemps Result in Criminal Charges?

Sometimes, when it escalates to a domestic violence offense. For example, an individual who barrages their ex-spouse with text messages at all hours with threats or coarse language may face harassment criminal charges and a restraining order to get them to stop. The ex-spouse must show that they experienced fear from the hostile texts to justify a restraining order. However, when the texter lives across the globe and cannot readily make good on the threats, and the text messages are angry name-calling vents more than specific threats, a court may not order a restraining order.

Domestic fights can escalate to domestic violence, even with one incident. Several texts, phone calls, or emails with angry bad-mouthing that escalate into a push, shove, or strike during a heated argument about the communications may be the basis of a restraining order. The insulting communications may be domestic contretemps between divorcing spouses or exes. However, a court could determine the violent act coupled with the contact is a reasonable basis of fear for the spouse seeking a restraining order, even if they were not injured. The underlying crimes may be harassment and simple assault.

Deep Dive into Domestic Contretemps in NJ Case Law

Take the case of E.D. v. P.D., A-692-09, a case in which the facts disclosed that the husband called his wife at work several times over three days to verify she paid for the kids’ sports and hostilely criticized and berated her, refusing to email her rather than call. He also yelled at her on the street before she entered a yoga studio to shout, “Get your ass home and take care of your kids.” He also criticized her ability to pay bills in other calls, calling her a “bitch” and flipped his middle finger at her as they passed by each other in their cars.

While the superior court considered the husband’s behavior as domestic violence, supporting a restraining order, the appellate court disagreed and reversed. The appellate court disagreed and reversed. The appellate court did not find sufficient, credible evidence of domestic violence, especially since the trial court did not make specific findings of the acts constituting a domestic violence crime, an intent to harass, nor a conclusion that a final restraining order was necessary for the alleged victim’s protection.

The appellate court also disagreed with the trial court’s finding of a history of domestic violence. It noted its failure to consider the domestic violence complaint as a strategy to gain an advantage in the family matters pending before the court. These and other errors caused the appellate court to conclude that the trial court’s restraining order was a reversible error. Notable is the appellate court’s reasoning that the harasser’s intent should be inferred from the evidence, informed by “common sense and experience.”

From this case, it is apparent that the dividing line is in the degree of alarm and annoyance of the acts to constitute harassment rather than domestic disputes. The appellate court also burdened the trial court to consider restraining orders as possible schemes to defeat the other party to a divorce or custody action. In other words, the appellate court in E.D. v. P.D. took a narrower view of harassment than different courts and considered the couple’s history as indicative of domestic violence or instances of fighting. So, a pattern of harassing communications or repetitive texts and phone calls over a long enough time may rise to domestic violence as evidence of the history or severity of the harassment to constitute a basis for a restraining order.

Is it a Domestic Contretemp or Domestic Abuse in NJ?

Judges typically look to a history of violence or other behaviors constituting domestic violence before issuing a restraining order. The history of domestic violence is one prong of the analysis, as well as if the behavior justifies the victim’s fear for their safety. Other cases are not so clear. One party may debase and intimidate another with crude or cruel language, which a court considers mere domestic contretemps.

With actions amounting to enough intensity and intention, harassment is a predicate act of domestic violence. Otherwise, debasing and angry communications are mere domestic arguments. In the context of a contentious divorce, domestic disputes and fighting are natural. A spouse seeking a restraining order on evidence of heated disagreements may jeopardize their stance in an ongoing divorce or custody proceeding, raising suspicion of a bad faith restraining order application as revenge, desperation, or deceit.

Let an Experienced Lawyer Review Your Case

In any scenario, an attorney experienced in domestic violence and relations is essential to defend a party accused of domestic violence. Knowing the case law that distinguishes the nuances of domestic contretemps is crucial for defending you if you have been charged with an act of domestic violence or have been served with a restraining order based on these allegations. Our talented domestic violence and restraining order lawyers at The Tormey Law Firm understand the case law, the legal complexities, and the ramifications of domestic contretemps in New Jersey, representing clients statewide. If you require assistance with the legal aspects of a domestic violence matter in civil or criminal court, contact us for a free consultation immediately at (908)-336-5008.

Filed under: Domestic Violence Case Issues

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