Does Destruction of Jointly Owned Property Amount to Criminal Mischief and An Act of Domestic Violence in New Jersey?

Domestic violence cases involving the destruction of property can be just as serious as cases involving physical violence. Any violent action is concerning, regardless of the target of the physical force. Destruction of property can be considered criminal mischief, an act of domestic violence under New Jersey law. Here we will look at the case of N.T.B v. D.D.B., a 2015 case where the question of who owned the destroyed property was at issue.

At the outset it is important to note that the parties in this case had a prior history of domestic violence. Before the marriage N.T.B obtained a temporary restraining order (TRO) against D.D.B. for burning him with a curling iron. The parties later married, and then in December 2013, N.T.B. filed for divorce. As of March 2014 they were both still living in the marital home but sleeping in separate rooms. The case at hand involves two separate violent incidents between the parties.

The first incident in the current case occurred on March 30, 2014, when D.D.B. was listening to music in her bedroom when N.T.B asked her to turn the music down. When D.D.B. refused, N.T.B destroyed the speakers first by pouring juice on them, then tore them down and put them in the bathroom toilet.

The second incident occurred the following evening. The parties argued, after which D.D.B. went into her bedroom with the couple’s daughter and locked the door. N.T.B broke down the door, splintering the doorframe. D.D.B. then struck N.T.B in the face, though the parties disagree about whether it was done in self-defense or unprovoked.

The parties each sought a Final Restraining Order (FRO) against the other. D.D.B. alleged that N.T.B’s actions constituted criminal mischief and harassment under the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. N.T.B alleged that D.D.B.’s actions constituted simple assault under the same statute. At trial the judge found that D.D.B. did commit simple assault and entered a FRO against her. The judge found that N.T.B did not commit criminal mischief or harassment and denied D.D.B.’s claims. The issue of criminal mischief is main issue that we will discuss in this case.

CRIMINAL MISCHIEF - N.J.S.A 2C:17-3

At trial the judge determined that D.D.B. did not show that N.T.B’s actions were criminal mischief. A person is guilty of criminal mischief as defined in the New Jersey statute if he or she:

(1) Purposely or knowingly damages tangible property of another or damages tangible property of another…
PROPERTY OF ANOTHER - DOES INCLUDE JOINTLY OWNED PROPERTY

The trial judge ruled that the portion of the definition that reads “tangible property of another” means that N.T.B’s damage of the speakers and door can not amount to criminal mischief since they are joint marital property, rather than being the property “of another.”

However, the court in this appeal disagreed. Here the court found that as to the destruction of the door, N.T.B’s actions constituted criminal mischief, because property jointly owned by the person causing the violence and the victim does qualify as criminal mischief. This is because the parties owned the home (and thus the door) as joint tenants by entirety, which is a legal term describing how a husband and wife jointly own property where each tenant (spouse) has a separate and distinct ownership of the property.

Since N.T.B and D.D.B. each have a separate and distinct ownership of the property, the destruction of the door constituted damage of the “property of another” within the meaning of the criminal mischief statute. The judge reasoned that to decide otherwise would allow one spouse to completely destroy a jointly owned home without leaving the other spouse with recourse. As to the speakers, the court sent the question of who owned the speakers to the lower court for a determination of the facts.

Domestic violence cases are always serious. If you are in a domestic violence situation please call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen to discuss your case.

SOURCES
N.T.B v. D.D.B, 442 N.J. Super 205 (App. Div. 2015)
N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3 Criminal Mischief

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