The NJ Supreme Court sets new rules to balance the rights of defendants and victims in sexual assault cases

The New Jersey Supreme Court on Monday established new rules on disclosing the addresses of sexual assault victims 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 court in September, overturned lower court decisions in a pre-trial dispute over whether prosecutors in a 2019 rape case would record a victim’s home address the defense had to pass on .

In that case, investigators said Oscar Ramirez, of Nord-Bergen, assaulted a 23-year-old woman walking home from work and sexually assaulted her in a Nord-Bergen cemetery, threatening to stab her with a box cutter kill her if she isn’t quiet. according to verdict.

Police identified Ramirez as a suspect based on surveillance footage. While he denied raping the woman, his DNA swabs recovered from her, and he told detectives he was a “bad person” who, according to the verdict, had previously killed people in Mexico.

During the pre-trial investigation, prosecutors applied for a protection order and refused defense attorneys the victim’s home address. She said she did not want to speak to the defense team and feared for her safety given the brutality of the crime and what Ramirez had said to police.

The defense objected, and a trial judge ordered prosecutors to give her address to defense attorneys but forbade them from giving it to Ramirez. An appeals court subsequently overturned that decision, saying the address should be kept confidential from both Ramirez and the defense team.

Courts considering such disputes in the future must follow the procedures set out in Sabatino’s judgment:

  • Prosecutors must apply for a protection order, backed by the victim’s affidavit that they do not want their address disclosed to the accused or defense attorneys.
  • Defense attorneys wishing to challenge this must file a statement explaining why a protection order should be denied and the defense needs the victim’s address.
  • If a judge agrees that the defense team can be contacted to question the victim, the judge can impose limitations or conditions, giving precedence to the victim’s right to remain in the privacy of their home, which is a place of refuge after a traumatic experience Has.
  • If a judge grants defense attorneys’ requests for the address, they cannot appear at the victim’s home without the court’s prior approval and approval.

Alex Shalom is director of the Supreme Court Advocacy Section at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which filed a brief in support of Ramirez in the case.

“Withholding a person’s address from defense counsel is a very important deal because it so severely limits their ability to conduct a thorough investigation,” Shalom said.

Even if victims don’t want to speak, defense attorneys can use their addresses to investigate things like their criminal background, credit history, social media posts and other things that ensure a rigorous defense, Shalom added.

However, Shalom expects another case will eventually test the new procedures mandated in Monday’s ruling over the new ban on appearing unannounced and without permission at victims’ homes.

“Everyone wants to protect victims and make their interactions with defense investigators as benign and non-incendive as possible. That’s a perfectly reasonable and probably broad-based goal,” Shalom said.

But defense attorneys who instead seek contact with victims might try to reach them at their place of work, the child’s school, or another public area, which may be even more unwelcome for a victim than someone knocking on their door at home added Shalom.

“From a standpoint of what’s best for the victims, I’m not sure the total, virtual ban on knocking on someone’s door is the right thing to do,” he added.