The issuance of a Domestic Violence Final Restraining Order carries a good deal of legal freight in terms of the proscribing a defendant’s conduct, providing for serious sanctions in the event of a violation of the Order and imposing important financial and non-financial obligations on a defendant. Coupled with the statutory mandate that domestic violence cases be heard quickly following the issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order, such hearings may within ten days or sooner in some counties. This makes the defendant’s task of understanding his or her legal rights and mounting a proper defense very time sensitive. How, in such circumstances, should a domestic violence defendant be expected to proceed?
In S.C. v. A.C., decided by the Appellate Division on January 23, 2014, the Court held that a defendant’s constitutional rights were violated by “rushing into a final hearing without giving him time to seek legal advice [and] prepare a full defense”. The case was fast-tracked even by domestic violence standards, with the hearing held one business day after the issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order. The charges against the defendant were serious, involving allegations of terroristic threats. To compound problems, the victim was permitted to testify concerning other alleged prior acts of domestic violence at trial. The appellate court found such events to have violated the defendant’s constitutional due process rights, reversed the decision and remanded the case for a new trial to afford the defendant adequate time “ to prepare and present his defenses fully to the court” pending which the Temporary Restraining Order was to remain in effect.
The S.C. v. A.C. decision represents a balancing of a victim’s need for temporary protection with a defendant’s right to understand and adequately defend the charges against him or her. As such, it is a worthy addition to the body of domestic violence law.