On Appeal from the Hawthorne Municipal Court
This appeal from a conviction in the Hawthorne Municipal Court addresses the issue of how far is "too far" in the efforts of a judgment-creditor to collect a civil judgment. Defendant, John E. Long, and complainant Ciarlo, enjoyed a brief economic relationship which was terminated for undisclosed reasons approximately two years prior to the Municipal Court trial. Although the transcripts of the Municipal Court proceedings are less than a model of clarity, it appears that Ciarlo defaulted on a contractual obligation to pay rent and damaged the leasehold premises prior to her departure. The tenancy lasted approximately six months. In an effort to redress his grievances, defendant retained the services of an attorney and commenced a civil action against Ciarlo in the Superior Court, Special Civil Part, Bergen County. Ciarlo defaulted and defendant obtained a judgment against her for approximately $4,000. representing back rent and physical damages to the apartment.
After the judgment was entered, defendant's attorney proceeded in accordance with R. 6:7-2 and obtained an order for discovery. The defendant, apparently concerned about the mounting costs of pursuing the elusive Ciarlo, decided to personally serve the Order. Defendant was advised by his attorney that while he could lawfully effect personal service of the order upon Ciarlo, he should nonetheless be "careful". On April 24, 1992, defendant appeared at Ciarlo's residence armed with the order for discovery. Ciarlo testified that defendant knocked at her door, stated "trick or treat," handed her the order and then "ran behind the bushes at [her] house." Except for this brief exchange, defendant neither spoke to complainant nor approached her in any threatening manner after service of the order.
The transcript reveals that Ciarlo proved to be an artful dodger. According to defendant's former attorney, notwithstanding the personal service of the order for discovery upon her, Ciarlo failed
to appear at the discovery proceedings. Defendant's attorney testified that he obtained a warrant for her arrest, which subsequently led to her appearance before the Special Civil Part where her depositions in aid of discovery were taken. Apparently the deposition was unproductive in revealing assets.
At this point, the defendant was introduced to the reality all too familiar to many civil litigants; that there is a difference between obtaining a money judgment and obtaining money in satisfaction of that judgment. Defendant's attorney advised him that "now you have to discover assets and levy against them in order to get that judgment." Defendant's attorney thereupon returned the file to the defendant. Thus began this odyssey which ended in the conviction of the defendant in the Hawthorne Municipal Court on a charge of harassment, N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c).
Unwilling or unable to spend additional monies for legal representation, yet equally unwilling to write off his judgment as a "bad debt", defendant set out on a mission to discover Ciarlo's assets. According to the competent testimony admitted by the Municipal Court, the defendant parked his car in front of the plaintiff's house on six occasions prior to the September 25, 1992 incident which is the subject of this appeal. Although there was no specific testimony from the complainant about these occasions, apparently defendant's stops outside her residence were brief. Ciarlo testified that on September 25, 1992 she left work shortly after her arrival, returning to her residence to retrieve some medication. She telephoned her boyfriend, Kerry Howard, and requested that he drive her back to work. Subsequently she heard Howard's truck, looked out her window and observed defendant in his vehicle "in a position where he had been sitting other times." Defendant quickly departed after the arrival of complainant's boyfriend. According to Howard's testimony, there were no conversations between defendant and Howard on this or any other occasion when the two encountered each other. Defendant would always drive away.
Ciarlo was permitted to offer a considerable amount of incompetent testimony by way of hearsay. It is noted that at the Municipal Court trial, defendant was unrepresented but Ciarlo was provided with a municipal public defender, who both prosecuted her complaint against defendant and defended her on defendant's counter-complaint for harassment. Ciarlo's hearsay testimony included allegations of defendant's telephone contact with her current landlord and former employer. She further claimed, without any apparent basis or corroboration, that defendant's actions caused her to be fired. The Municipal Court belatedly sustained an objection to this testimony. However, defendant did admit to placing one telephone call to Ciarlo's landlord, inquiring about ownership of vehicles in his driveway.
Ciarlo also testified about a prior harassment complaint brought by her against defendant in the Ridgewood Municipal Court. The genesis of this complaint was defendant's attempt to write down complainant's license plate number while her car was parked in the municipal court parking lot. Although the transcript is unclear, it appears Ciarlo was at the Ridgewood Court, responding to defendant's complaint alleging theft and damages to the apartment. The Ridgewood Municipal Court declined to adjudicate either matter, referring them to an alternate dispute resolution committee. See R. 7:3-2.
Defendant testified at the trial that at all times he was merely endeavoring to ascertain the location of assets in order to satisfy his civil judgment against Ciarlo. He did not deny that he had parked in front of defendant's residence on at least six occasions, but maintained that they were of brief duration. He testified that such conduct was only for the purpose of determining whether Ciarlo owned any motor vehicles. Defendant testified, without contradiction, that except for the "trick or treat" exchange, he and Ciarlo had not spoken since she abandoned the ...