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 act of violence is cause for concern, regardless of the target of the physical force. Destruction of property can be considered criminal mischief, which can be characterized as an act of domestic violence under New Jersey law. For example, consider the case of N.T.B v. D.D.B., where the question of who actually owned property which had been destroyed 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 parties even got married, N.T.B obtained a temporary restraining order (TRO) against D.D.B. for burning him with a curling iron. In spite of this conduct, the parties later married. In December of 2013, N.T.B. filed for divorce. By March of 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 when D.D.B. was listening to music in her bedroom. N.T.B asked her to turn the music down, but D.B.B. refused to do so. In return, N.T.B destroyed the speakers, first by pouring juice on them, and when that did not produce the required effect, he then tore them down from off the wall and dropped them in the toilet.

The second incident occurred the following evening. The parties argued in their living room. D.D.B. and the couple’s daughter went into the room that D.D.B. had been sleeping in. They locked the door. N.T.B tried to follow them, but upon realizing that they had locked him out, the body slammed the door and broke it down. The door frame splintered. D.D.B then argued that N.T.B. physically blocked her from leaving the room, and so she slapped him in the face so she could escape. N.T.B. disagreed, saying D.D.B. slapped him completely unprovoked.

The parties each sought a Final Restraining Order (FRO) against each other. D.D.B. argued that N.T.B’s actions amounted to criminal mischief and harassment under the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. At the same time, 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.

Criminal Mischief - N.J.S.A 2C:17-3

At trial the judge determined that D.D.B. failed to carry the burden of proof for elements of criminal mischief under the law. A person shall be found guilty of criminal mischief as defined in the New Jersey statute if he or she:

  1. Intentionally damages the physical property of another.
Property of Another - Does Include Jointly Owned Property

The trial judge then had to make the determination as to what constituted the property of another person. The judger interpreted that this definition does not include joint or marital property. In this case, N.T.B.’s destruction of the speakers and damage to the door could not be considered damage to the property of another, and therefore his conduct could not amount to criminal mischief as defined under the statute.

However, the decision was appealed, and the appellate court appeal disagreed. If someone damages property that is jointly owned, it will constitute as criminal mischief. In this case, 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 an ownership interest in the property. When parties own a property as joint tenants, then if one spouse dies, the other spouse will inherit the other spouse’s entire interest, meaning each spouse owns an undivided interest in the whole or entire property.

Given this arrangement, the appellate court determined that 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.

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