United States: Destruction Of Jointly-Owned Property Constitutes Predicate Act Of Criminal Mischief; But What Is "Jointly-Owned Property"?

On September 9, 2015, the Appellate Division determined in a reported (precedential) decision, N.T.B. v. D.D.B. (A-4542-13T2), that a spouse's destruction of a door within the couple's jointly-owned marital home constitutes the predicate act of "criminal mischief," pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3, thereby supporting a finding of an act of domestic violence.

Background

The parties, husband, N.T.B., and wife, D.D.B., married in 2012 and had one (1) child, an eight (8) year old daughter. The parties resided together with their daughter in a home they purchased during their marriage and owned as tenants by the entirety (i.e. jointly owned as husband and wife).

In December 2013, N.T.B. filed for divorce, and as of March 2014, the parties were sleeping in separate bedrooms within the home. On March 30, 2014, D.D.B. was listening to music in her bedroom alone when N.T.B. told her to lower the volume. When D.D.B. refused to lower the volume, N.T.B. poured juice onto the speakers in an effort to silence them. When that did not work, he ripped the speakers out of the wall, brought them into the bathroom and threw them into the toilet.

The following evening, the parties engaged in an argument in the living room. D.D.B. and the parties' daughter went inside D.D.B.'s bedroom and locked the door. Plaintiff attempted to open the door and when he realized that it was locked, he broke the door open "by slamming his body against it, splintering the door frame in the process." After N.T.B. broke the door open, D.D.B. maintained that N.T.B. prevented her from leaving the bedroom, so she slapped him in the face in order to leave. N.T.B. maintained that he never prevented D.D.B. from leaving the room and that she punched him in the face without provocation.

The parties filed cross-complaints each seeking a Final Restraining Order (FRO) against the other. This wasn't the first time the parties had been involved in a domestic disputes as prior to their marriage, N.T.B. previously obtained a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against D.D.B after she burned him with a curling iron.

D.D.B.'s complaint alleged that N.T.B.'s actions constituted both the predicate acts of criminal mischief (N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3) and harassment (N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4), thereby warranting an entry of an FRO against him. N.T.B.'s complaint alleged that D.D.B.'s action of striking him constituted the predicate act of simple assault (N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1).

The trial Judge determined that D.D.B. did not establish either predicate act and denied her request for an FRO. With regard to criminal mischief, the trial Judge concluded that D.D.B. failed to establish that N.T.B. damaged "the property of another" as required by the statute, because "the speakers and bedroom door [were] within the martial home that is shared by the parties, both appearing to be marital property," The trial judge further held that D.D.B. failed to establish any of the elements constituting harassment.

Under N.J.S.A. 2C:17-3(a)(1), a person is guilty of criminal mischief if he "purposely or knowingly damages tangible property of another..." The trial Judge reasoned that since "the statute does not prohibit a person from causing damage to their own property", D.D.B. failed to show that N.T.B. committed an act against the tangible property of another, thereby preluding a finding of criminal mischief.

D.D.B. appealed both the trial court's decision that N.T.B.'s destruction of the speakers did not amount to criminal mischief and that N.T.B.'s conduct was insufficient to establish harassment (among other things); however, she did not challenge the trial Judge's determination that the destruction of the bedroom door did not amount to criminal mischief and the Appellate Division chose to address this issue on its own accord.

With regard to N.T.B.'s destruction of D.D.B.'s bedroom door, the Appellate panel observed that the parties acquired the home during their marriage as tenants by the entirety.

A tenancy by the entirety allows spouses to jointly own property together as husband and wife, but neither they, nor their creditors, have the right to attach, encumber, convey or transfers their interest. A tenancy by the entirety includes a right of survivorship, so that upon the death of one spouse, the remaining spouse inherits the whole of the property. Therefore, under a tenancy by the entirety, each spouse owns an undivided interest in the whole of the property.

A tenancy by the entirety differs from ownership as tenants in common. Under a tenancy in common, all tenants have an individual, undivided ownership interest, which they may transfer, convey, encumber, etc.

The Appellate Court concluded that while "each tenant by the entirety is a tenant in common with the other during the joint lives of the spouses", "each co-tenant has a separate and distinct freehold title and each holds his or her title and interest independently of the others." In light of this, the Appellate Division determined that N.T.B. and D.D.B. each held a separate and distinct interest in their home and therefore, N.T.B.'s act of breaking down D.D.B's bedroom door did in fact destroy the "property of another" (due to D.D.B.'s undivided interest in the home) and he therefore committed the predicate act of criminal mischief.

The Appellate Division opined that to conclude otherwise would "permit a spouse to purposely and maliciously totally destroy his or her jointly owned marital home, without sanction, leaving no recourse for the innocent spouse to secure an FRO on the basis of the home's ruin."

The Appellate Division further disagreed with the trial court's conclusion that N.T.B.'s act of pouring juice on D.D.B.'s speakers, ripping them out of the wall and throwing them in the toilet did not establish criminal mischief through damage to the "property of another".

The Appellate panel noted that D.D.B. testified that the speakers belonged to her and were kept in her bedroom, while N.T.B. testified that the speakers were marital property since they were purchased during the marriage and were located inside of the home. However, the trial court did not engage in any analysis to determine whether the speakers were the "property of another" for the purpose of the criminal mischief statute.

The Appellate Division instructed the trial judge on remand to "make specific factual findings as to when, how and by whom, [the speakers] were purchased, for the purpose of determining whether [N.T.B.] enjoyed any tangible proprietary interest in them."

To assist the trial judge on remand, the Appellate Division even went so far as stating that they "disagree with the proposition that, under New Jersey law, any personal property acquired during the marriage automatically becomes joint property." To support this conclusion, the Appellate Court cited N.J.S.A. 46:3-17.2, "which recognizes the establishment of a tenancy by the entirety in personal, as well as real property." This statute requires that "for acquired personalty to be considered joint property held by the entirety, the spouses must "take title to an interest [therein]...under a written instrument designating both of their names as husband and wife." N.J.S.A. 46:3-17.2(a). "Absent evidence of such an instrument, the common-law prohibition against personal property being held by the entirety prevails."

Parting Words

Does this decision intend to reach out from the realm of domestic violence law into the sphere of equitable distribution? Matrimonial attorneys routinely divide assets, real property, personalty, etc. based upon the presumption that same were acquired during the marriage, with marital funds, thereby making them "joint marital assets" regardless of title. It appears from the holding in N.T.B. v. D.D.B. that unless there is an instrument designating property as joint, all property acquired during a marriage, with marital funds, would purportedly belong to the possessory owner. Of course, as the trial judge was instructed on remand, specific findings must be made to determine whether another has a proprietary interest in the property. I can't help but wonder how this decision may change the landscape of equitable distribution of marital assets.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.