In Brief

Bipartisan bill would end ‘stranger loophole’ for restraining orders

By: - July 21, 2022 7:05 am

Sen. Jon Bramnick says state law leaves few options for people who seek restraining orders against people they are not romantically involved with. (Courtesy of Sen. Bramnick)

A bipartisan set of New Jersey lawmakers want to expand state law to allow stalking victims to get restraining orders against their harassers, even if they’re being stalked by a stranger.

Restraining orders are meant to protect victims of domestic violence cases. They are civil orders and do not require criminal charges to be filed against the defendant, though such charges often accompany restraining orders.

Under state statute, the only times restraining orders can be issued without a conviction are in domestic violence cases — meaning they can bar a family member or one-time significant other from contacting the victim — or in stalking cases involving minors or adults who cannot provide consent because of a disorder.

While the individual provisions of a given order vary depending on the case, they can bar a defendant from contacting the victim and their friends or family members, block them from entering the victim’s home or place of work, and allow police to seize firearms belonging to the defendant, among other things.

Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union) said he signed on as a co-sponsor after hearing from the family of a 27-year-old woman who, after receiving strange and threatening messages at all hours from a man she had never dated, was unable to get a restraining order against her stalker.

“Long story short, she goes to the police station, the police say, ‘Well, you can’t get a restraining order. You’ve got to file criminal charges,’” Bramnick said. “Meanwhile, the police don’t do it, so you have to do it yourself.”

The woman has since filed criminal charges, but the stalker is free to contact her while the trial is ongoing, the senator said.

It’s possible for an adult stalking victim to get a restraining order against a stranger, but they must wait for their stalker to be convicted on related charges, such as harassment.

“The sort of loophole here is where a conviction hasn’t taken place, and it’s also a stranger, so I think this would be an excellent addition to that body of law,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), the bill’s prime sponsor.

Alleged stalkers might be barred from contacting the victim by a separate judicial order — like a no-contact order, for instance — but breaching such accords doesn’t always carry the immediate criminal penalties attached to restraining order violations.

If a defendant violates the restraints set by an order, they’re likely to face criminal contempt charges, which can carry a prison term of up to 18 months.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which may meet to confirm judges during legislators’ customary summer recess. That leaves a chance the bill could advance before lawmakers return to Trenton in earnest come September.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.