The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled to remand a North Bergen rape case to the lower court over whether of not the alleged victim should have to disclose her home address.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
The 46-page opinion, issued by Judge Jack M. Sabatino and joined by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, along with Justices Anne M. Patterson, Lee A. Solomon, Fabiana Pierre-Louis, Judge Douglas M. Fasciale, and Judge Clarkson S. Fisher, Jr., reviews the case of Oscar Ramirez.
On October 25th, 2019, Ramirez, then 27, is accused of holding a box cutter to a woman’s throat while at a North Bergen cemetery and threatened to kill her if she screamed as he raped her. He turned himself in to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office five days later.
“The judge reasoned that although partial release of the victim’s address to the defense team ‘may not entirely relieve her subjective fears,’ defendant was incarcerated, defense investigators are trained to identify themselves, and the defense team had represented that it would not coerce or intimidate the victim. He added that when the defense team contacts her, the victim can still decline to speak with them,” the ruling says.
“Thus, the judge concluded that the release of the victim’s address to only defense counsel and defense investigators struck a proper balance between defendant’s constitutional rights to contact a witness and the victim’s ‘physical safety.’ Notably, the judge’s written decision did not discuss the statutory or constitutional rights of sexual assault victims.”
The opinion several times cites the importance of considering several relevant state statutes in cases like this one: specifically the Victim’s Rights Amendment (VRA), the Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights (CVBR), and the Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.
The Supreme Court ruled that both Hudson County Superior Court and the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division did properly take these frameworks into account.
The state’s highest court determined that the appellate court felt that because the trial court failed to consider the aforementioned statutes, the trial court’s partial denial of the protective order amounted to an abuse of discretion, warranting reversal.
In addition to counsel for Ramirez, attorneys for the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (ACDL) and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU NJ) argued that the appellate decision should be overturned.
“They assert the Appellate Division unfairly assumed that defense attorneys or investigators are prone to act unprofessionally by harassing victims at their addresses and failing to honor victims’ right to decline to participate in interviews or investigations,” the Supreme Court wrote.
Conversely, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office maintained that the defense can conduct a sufficient pretrial investigation and mount a vigorous defense without the victim’s home address being disclosed by the prosecution.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided that this matter needs to be argued further.
“The trial court’s ruling does not explicitly discuss a sexual assault victim’s codified rights under the VRA, CVBR, or SAVBR. It could be more attentive to the psychological, non-physical trauma experienced by such victims. Also, the trial court does not impose any reasonable conditions on defense counsel’s access to the victim at her residence,” they wrote.
“On the other hand, the appellate ruling does not allow for any process, as we have outlined here, to verify the victim’s actual informed refusal to be interviewed by the defense team or to divulge her address. Both decisions — issued without this Court’s guidance — are incomplete in those respects. A more fulsome balancing of the competing interests is warranted.”
As a result, the supreme court vacated the appellate court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings.