C.C.E. v. C.R.E.: Beeps, Signs, and an “Unschooled Litigant” in a Domestic Violence Trial

On September 20, 2018, the Appellate Division handed down an unpublished opinion on C.C.E v. C.R.E., a case about a Final Restraining Order (FRO) granted under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.

The parties had been married for about 19 years when the wife a non-dissolution docket (often called the FD docket).  The wife’s application resulted in an order granting her exclusive possession of the parties’ marital residence, and, among other things, directing that the husband have no contact with the wife “whether oral, written, direct or indirect, via text, email or social media, except for text or email for the welfare of the children only.”

Thereafter, the husband regularly drove past the marital residence and beeped or waved.  In order to gather proof of the husband’s violation of the civil restraints, the wife put up signs on her mailbox referring to the husband as a stalker and mentioning his girlfriend by name.  The husband texted the wife about the signs, thereby proving that he had driven by the former marital residence and read them.

The husband filed a domestic violence complaint against the wife alleging that her posted signs constituted harassment.  The wife filed her own domestic violence complaint based upon harassment and stalking.  At the time of the hearing, the husband proceeded as a self-represented litigant, while the wife was represented by an attorney.  The trial court judge often reframed the questions that the husband was asking the wife during cross-examination (which the husband later used as part of the basis of his appeal).

The trial court ultimately granted the wife’s request for a final restraining order and denied the husband’s request.  The trial court found that the wife was credible and that the husband was not.  The trial court also concluded that the husband’s text messages were meant to cause annoyance or alarm to the wife, which is within the Domestic Violence Act’s statutory definition of harassment, and that the harassment rose above the “ordinary domestic contretemps” that are defined by domestic violence case law, which are often present in domestic violence litigation and do not, by themselves, justify the Court issuing an FRO.

On appeal, the husband argued several points, including that the trial court abused its discretion and violated his constitutional rights by denying him the right to directly cross-examine the wife.  The Court commented that when at least one party is unrepresented in an FRO hearing, a judge is not only permitted to do much of the examination; a judge is expected to do it.  The court reasoned that a judge needs to do much of the examination “in order to seek the truth that might not easily arrive when an unschooled litigant attempts to examine a witness.”  The Appellate Court further commented that refocusing the testimony the husband sought to elicit from the wife did not prejudice the husband’s prosecution of his case nor did they hamper his defense.  The Appellate Division affirmed all aspects of the trial court’s orders, except for the award of counsel fees, which was vacated and remanded for further consideration.