N.J. Supreme Court sets new rules to balance defendants’ and victims’ rights in sex assault cases
The New Jersey Supreme Court set new procedures court must follow in sex assault cases to determine whether to disclose a victim's home address to defense attorneys. (Getty Images)
The New Jersey Supreme Court on Monday set new rules on disclosing sex assault victims’ addresses for judges trying to balance the competing interests of defendants and victims.
Judge Jack M. Sabatino, writing his first Supreme Court opinion since his temporary assignment to the court began in September, vacated lower courts’ rulings in a discovery dispute over whether prosecutors had to disclose a victim’s home address to the defense in a 2019 rape case.
In that case, investigators say Oscar Ramirez of North Bergen attacked a 23-year-old woman as she walked home from work and sexually assaulted her in a North Bergen cemetery, threatening to kill her with a box cutter if she wasn’t quiet, according to the ruling.
Police identified Ramirez as a suspect from surveillance footage. While he denied he raped the woman, his DNA matched swabs recovered from her, and he told detectives he was a “bad person” who had previously killed people in Mexico, according to the ruling.
In pretrial discovery, prosecutors sought a protective order and withheld the victim’s home address from defense attorneys, saying she did not want to talk with the defense team and feared for her safety, given the brutality of the crime and Ramirez’s comments to police.
The defense objected, and a trial judge ordered prosecutors to disclose her address to defense attorneys but barred them from revealing it to Ramirez. An appellate court subsequently reversed that decision, saying the address should be kept confidential from both Ramirez and the defense team.
Courts weighing such disputes going forward must follow procedures Sabatino laid out in his ruling:
- Prosecutors must seek a protective order supported by the victim’s sworn statement that they don’t want their address disclosed to the defendant or defense attorneys.
- Defense attorneys who want to challenge that must file a response outlining why a protective order should be denied and the defense needs the victim’s address.
- If a judge agrees the defense team can reach out to interview the victim, the judge can impose restrictions or conditions, prioritizing the victim’s right to remain in the privacy of their home, which is a refuge after a traumatic experience.
- If a judge grants defense attorneys’ requests for the address, they can’t show up at the victim’s house without advance consent and court approval.
Alex Shalom is director of Supreme Court advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which filed a brief in the case supporting Ramirez.
“It is a very significant deal to withhold from defense counsel a person’s address because it so limits their ability to conduct a thorough investigation,” Shalom said.
Even when victims don’t want to talk, defense attorneys can use their addresses to investigate things like their criminal backgrounds, credit history, social media posts, and other things that will ensure a rigorous defense, Shalom added.
Shalom expects, though, another case eventually will test the new procedures ordered in Monday’s ruling, because of the new ban on showing up to victim’s homes unannounced and without approval.
“Everyone wants to protect victims and make the interaction that they have with defense investigators as inoffensive and non-triggering as possible. That’s a totally reasonable and probably commonly held goal,” Shalom said.
But defense attorneys looking to connect with victims instead could try to reach them at their workplace, child’s school, or some other public sphere, which might be even more unwelcome to a victim than someone knocking on their door at home, Shalom added.
“From the standpoint of what is best for victims, I’m not sure that the total, virtual prohibition on knocking on someone’s door is the right thing,” he added.
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