Bill gives stalking victims some legal recourse

TRENTON – New Jersey would join ten other states in giving stalking victims easier recourse against their alleged harassers through the courts under a bill that cleared a committee today.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee today unanimously approved a bill (A4086) that would allow alleged victims of stalkers to proceed to the courthouse by bringing civil suits for damages against them.

“This would give the person who’s being stalked a little more leverage,” said Judiciary Chairman Peter Barnes, D-Edison. “Right now, it’s often hard to get law enforcement and prosecutors to bring charges.”

There’s a lower standard of proof needed to find a defendant liable in a civil action, Barnes said. And also under his bill, stalking victims who win in court would also be entitled to attorney’s fees and compensatory or punitive damages, whichever applies in the case.

Though he didn’t have figures, Barnes, who is an attorney, says there’s much anecdotal evidence that says there are many victims of stalkers who could benefit from the bill because law enforcement is often too busy to prosecute criminally.

If the law is enacted, New Jersey would become the eleventh state in the nation to adopt such a statute, according to the Office of Legislative Services, the Legislature’s non-partisan research arm. California, Texas and Michigan are among the states. Virginia and Rhode Island are the only states on the East Coast to have such a law on the books.

In other business, the Judiciary committee also took up legislation designed to protect prostitutes aged 17 and under from jail time and prosecution. Under the legislation (A3700), law enforcement would be required to operate under the presumption that anyone under 18 who is arrested for prostitution was coerced into the crime.

The committee was unanimous in its support of the bill.

Another bill the committee sent out for consideration by the full house would increase penalties for anyone who commits a crime at a church, synagogue, temple or other house of worship.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Trenton, who said he voted for the legislation (A1135) in committee only to join his Democratic colleagues, added that he’ll oppose it on the floor.

The bill calls for increasing the crime a degree higher than it would be elsewhere in statutes. It also says that anyone who commits a crime in a house of worship “shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment.”

Gusciora says he can’t support a bill that he says mandates jail time for any crime.

“Under this bill you’d go to jail for littering,” Gusciora says.

Committee chair Barnes disagreed and says that would not be the practical effect.

The five Democrats on the committee, including Gusciora, voted for it while the two Republicans – Michael Patrick Carroll, (R-Morristown) and Caroline Cassagrande (R-Freehold) – abstained.

The committee also released a bill (A2558) amending the state’s Crime Victims Bill of Rights.

Among the changes: Survivors of homicide victims would be allowed to wear a button during trial containing a picture of the victim. It could be no bigger than four inches in diameter. A concern was raised on the committee that such a practice could result in the defense claiming that a jury had been tainted by the sight and a mistrial being declared.

Nonetheless, the bill was released unanimously.

A bill that was before the committee for discussion purposes only would require the state to automatically expunge the criminal records of young offenders who are eligible.

Gusciora is sponsoring that bill (A1060), saying in economic hard times like these, employers are using such findings against job applicants. He says the more well-to-do can afford the $1,000 to $1,500 in attorney’s fees to clear their record while the process is far too burdensome for the average person to clear their record on their own without extraordinary effort.

The Administrative Office of the Courts argued the $30 fee should remain because there is much paperwork and expense associated with the work that the state and local entities would otherwise have to pay for themselves with increasingly limited funds.

  Bill gives stalking victims some legal recourse