Bill to expand restraining orders could clog courts, critics warn
When Michele Albano’s daughter began getting creepy, threatening texts from a man, she asked police for help.
But officers told the young woman she couldn’t get an immediate restraining order because she had no personal relationship with him and refused to press criminal charges, fearing the harassment would escalate.
It took eight months for courts to grant her a protective stay-away order, her mother said.
“We — her parents, her brothers and sisters, and her — lived in constant fear that he would show up at her door, as he had threatened,” Albano said. “He lived only two blocks away, and she was provided no protection.”
Albano shared her daughter’s story Monday with legislators mulling a bill that would close the “stranger loophole” in the statute governing restraining orders, which are meant to protect domestic violence victims.
Under existing law, judges can issue restraining orders without a criminal conviction only in domestic violence cases or in stalking cases involving minors or adults with a mental disability.
But under the bill heard in the Senate’s judiciary committee Monday, victims would be able to petition for a restraining order even if their stalker is a stranger, co-worker, or some other acquaintance with whom they have no intimate or familial relationship.
“If the police were bringing these criminal charges, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union), a bill sponsor and committee member who introduced Albano. “The first police department they went to, the police said: ‘Why don’t you just block him?’ If that’s not a response from the 1960s, I haven’t heard one.”
While many committee members chimed in to support the bill, a steady stream of critics approached the microphone after Albano to urge legislators to reconsider.
Pamela Geller, a legislative liaison for the Administrative Office of the Courts, called the bill “overly broad” and “ripe for abuse.” She also warned it could clog courts overburdened by pandemic closures and longstanding judicial vacancies.
The courts already issue about 15,000 temporary restraining orders a year in criminal and disorderly persons cases, she said.
“Removing the filter of the familial or dating relationship would increase these numbers dramatically. For an already strained judiciary, this is a daunting thought,” she said.
Attorney Derek Freed of the New Jersey State Bar Association urged legislators to add the crimes of stalking, harassment, and cyber harassment to the list of offenses, including sexual assault and lewdness, that allow judges to issue restraining orders under the Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act.
Ruth Anne Robbins, a Rutgers Law School professor, echoed that call.
She told legislators that overly broad restraining order rules in Maryland and Washington, D.C., led to people misusing the legal system to secure speedy resolutions in landlord-tenant disputes, neighbor spats, and other non-emergency matters.
“They have a nickname based on the speed of determination they can get called the ‘rocket docket,’ and they know to use it when they want a very fast 10-day turnaround on things like people filing for restraining orders against neighbors because dogs dug up bushes or went to the bathroom on their lawns, neighbors calling it criminal mischief when kids would cut across the lawn because it was the quicker way to the bus stop, or when there was actually disputes about yard boundaries,” Robbins said.
Legislators didn’t vote on the bill, saying they would consider testimony and amend the bill for a later vote.