A Morris County Family Division judge denied a man his right to a fair hearing and inappropriately cut off his explanations before issuing a final domestic violence restraining order against the man who was accused of threatening to post intimate videos of his ex-girlfriend on the Internet, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The appellate panel, ruling in a Morris County case captioned C.H. vs. J.S., reversed a final restraining order issued on July 9, 2014 by Superior Court Judge Philip J. Maenza and ordered that a new hearing be conducted by another judge.
"Not only was the evidence of record insufficient to support the trial judge's conclusions, but also the procedures employed at trial deprived defendant of fundamental due process," the appeals court said in its written decision.
According to the decision. C.H. and J.S. began dating in June 2012 and ended their relationship in October 2013. They resumed their relationship before breaking up for good in June 2014. The man allegedly sent the woman a series of "six or seven ranting text messages" that called her names and suggested he would post private videos of the woman on the Internet, the decision said.
The parties were identified only by their initials in the ruling, which also did not state their hometowns.
At the hearing before Maenza, neither the man nor woman was represented by an attorney. The woman generally testified her ex-beau had previously threatened Internet postings of her and she "wanted to put a stop to it" so she contacted police.
At trial, Maenza asked: "How did this incident about the video affect you?" and "Are you concerned?" The woman responded that she was concerned because "once something goes on the Internet it doesn't come off the Internet."
The judge addressed the man at the hearing and asked whether he had questions for the woman. J.S. responded: "I don't know the context to ask something like this." The judge queried, according to the decision: "Well, let me ask you this, do you dispute that you had this conversation and these emails where you threatened to expose her to the world?"
The man responded: "I admit that the third time that she broke up with me I...was very hurt and I said things I didn't mean but I also think that after two years of being with me she knows that I would never do anything like that. I don't even know how to do anything like that. I wanted her to understand...how hurt I was...but that's it."
The hearing ended after J.S.'s statement, with the judge announcing:"That's where you cross the line." He found that J.S.'s statement's represented an admission of criminal harassment, concluded the ex-girlfriend had proved by a preponderance of the evidence that an act of domestic violence had occurred and decided to grant C.H. a final restraining order.
The appellate division wrote that the man attempted to ask a question but was "rebuffed," and when he objected that he believed he didn't get to ask several questions he wanted to, he was told he could ask questions after the order was issued, the decision said.
After the order was entered, J.S. -- through attorney Patricia Cistaro -- appealed the Maenza order. Cistaro was not immediately available for comment Tuesday. Cistaro had asserted that the "evidence" warranting a restraining order was insufficient and that J.S.'s due process rights to a fair hearing and right to defend himself against the harassment claims were violated.
The appeals court noted the importance of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act and its goal of protecting people of all social and economic backgrounds from abuse. But the court found in this case that the record was limited, without supporting evidence about the exact content of the texts and the dates they were received. The court ruled that J.S.'s statements to Maenza also "were not an admission of the conduct and he specifically denied an intent to harass."
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What happens when a parent’s statutory right to make decisions comes against a court order to the contrary? If the child is in the custody of the state of Maine, the answer is very much up to the judge.
That’s the take away from the decision In Re: Z.S. handed down by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court last week.
According to Maine law, parents have a statutory right to opt their child out of the state’s general vaccination requirement based on a sincerely held religious belief or other philosophical exemption. The mother of Z.S. had chosen to exercise that right based on her beliefs regarding vaccines and disease.
At issue in the appeal from a lower court was whether the lower court judge could override this statutory right (a right reserved explicitly by state statute) without first terminating the mother’s parental rights.Ordinarily, termination of rights requires the high “clear and convincing evidence” standard, while a custody ruling requires only a “preponderance of the evidence” standard.
In this case, the mother was found to be negligent based on accusations not related to vaccines. The “preponderance” standard was met and the child was held in state custody. But in his custody ruling the judge also called for the Child Welfare department to override the mother’s statutory right to opt out of vaccination while the child was in custody. The mother appealed this violation of her statutory right.
Labels: Parental Rights
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