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State v. Chenique-Puey

July 17, 1996


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J. Justices Handler, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in Justice POLLOCK's opinion. Chief Justice Wilentz did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pollock

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).


Argued February 13, 1996 -- Decided July 17, 1996

POLLOCK, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

The issue on appeal is whether charges of making terroristic threats to kill may be tried jointly with charges of contempt of a domestic-violence restraining order.

Aurelio Chenique-Puey was convicted of making terroristic threats to kill and of contempt of a domestic-violence restraining order in a consolidated jury trial in the Law Division. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed, ruling that separate trials were required because evidence of the restraining order unfairly prejudiced Chenique-Puey on the terroristic-threats charge.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.


The trial court erred by denying Aurelio Chenique-Puey's motion to sever his indictment for contempt of the domestic violence restraining order and terroristic threats to kill. Evidence of a restraining order obtained by the victim against Chenique-Puey unduly prejudiced Chenique-Puey's trial on terroristic threats.

1. In the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, the Legislature has made clear its intention to assure victims of domestic violence get the maximum protection from abuse the law can provide. However, courts must balance the vigilant protection of a victim of domestic violence with the right of a defendant to a fair trial. Resolution of the appeal requires a careful balancing of two competing values: the expeditious determination of a compelling issue with the protection of the rights of the accused. (pp. 5-6)

2. Mandatory joinder of offenses is required when multiple criminal offenses charged are based on the same conduct or arise from the same episode, if such offenses are known to the appropriate prosecuting officer at the time the first trial is begun and are within the jurisdiction and venue of a single court. Notwithstanding the preference for joinder, the trial court has discretion to order separate trials if joinder would prejudice unfairly a defendant. The decision whether to sever an indictment rests in the sound discretion of the trial court. The appellate court should defer to the trial court's decision, absent an abuse of discretion. Central to the court's inquiry is whether, assuming that charges were tried separately, evidence of the offenses sought to be severed would be admissible in the trial of the remaining charges. If the evidence would be admissible at both trials, then the trial court may consolidate the charges. (pp. 6-7)

3. To convict a defendant of the fourth-degree crime of contempt of a restraining order issued pursuant to the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, the State must prove: 1) the issuance of a restraining order pursuant to the Act; 2) defendant's violation of the order; 3) that defendant acted purposely or knowingly; and 4) the conduct that constituted the violation also constituted a crime or disorderly persons offense. Here, evidence of a domestic-violence restraining order was an essential element of the State's proofs on the contempt charge. Furthermore, evidence of Chenique-Puey's past acts of violence against his victim were admitted properly to show that his attack was committed purposely and knowingly. Therefore, there was no error in Chenique-Puey's conviction for contempt. (pp. 8-9)

4. At Chenique-Puey's trial for terroristic threats to kill, his prior acts of domestic violence would be admissible only for the limited purpose of demonstrating that the victim had reason to believe that Chenique-Puey would make good on his threats to kill her and her companion. Such evidence, however, is inadmissible to show that Chenique-Puey "acted in conformity" with these prior bad acts. The trial court should have given a charge on the limited purpose for which the prior-acts evidence was admitted. Evidence of the restraining order is inadmissible, however, to prove terroristic threats. Admission of the restraining order could have prejudiced unduly Chenique-Puey by bolstering the victim's testimony regarding his prior bad acts. The order creates the inference that if the court found Chenique-Puey guilty of domestic violence in a prior proceeding, that he is more than likely guilty of the terroristic-threat charge. (pp. 9-10)

5. In the future, trial courts should sever and try sequentially charges of contempt of a domestic-violence restraining order and of an underlying criminal offense when the charges arise from the same criminal episode. First, the court should try the charge on the underlying offense. Evidence of a previously-issued domestic violence restraining order generally will not be admissible in that trial. If, however, the defendant testifies, the order would be admissible for the limited purpose of impeaching his or her testimony. Following a verdict on the underlying offense, the trial court should immediately proceed to try the contempt charge before the same jury. In that trial, the jury may consider the evidence presented in the trial of the underlying offense. Any slight inconvenience to the victim of separate proceedings before the same jury is outweighed by a defendant's right to a fair trial. (pp. 10-11)

6. Severing the contempt and terroristic-threat count should not create a double-jeopardy problem. A defendant who moves to sever the trial of a charge of contempt of a domestic violence restraining order from the trial of an underlying offense should be precluded from asserting that double jeopardy or collateral estoppel bars the subsequent prosecution. Double jeopardy concerns would arise only if the State sought to try the offenses separately. (p. 11)

Judgment of the Appellate Division in respect of Chenique-Puey's conviction for contempt is REVERSED and the contempt conviction is REINSTATED. Judgment of the Appellate Division vacating the conviction of terroristic threats to kill is AFFIRMED and REMANDED to the Law Division.


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