On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at: 290 N.J. Super. 451 (1996).
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 Poritz 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).
In the Matter of Return of Weapons to J.W.D. (A-84-96)
Argued January 7, 1997 -- Decided May 6, 1997
POLLOCK, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
The issue in this appeal is whether a defendant in an action under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -33 (the "Act"), is entitled to the return of firearms if the trial court, after dismissing the domestic violence complaint, concludes that the defendant poses a threat to public health, safety, or welfare.
S.D. and defendant, J.W.D., are divorced. Before their divorce, S.D. filed two domestic violence complaints against J.W.D. in two years. In June 1992, when S.D. filed the first domestic violence complaint, the police confiscated J.W.D.'s guns and firearms purchaser's identification card. Thereafter, S.D. dismissed the complaint. On dismissal of the complaint, J.W.D. wrote to the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's office requesting the return of the guns and the card. The prosecutor's office returned the guns and the card.
In or about December 1994, S.D. filed a second domestic violence complaint and obtained a temporary restraining order that again required confiscation of J.W.D.'s guns and identification card. After a hearing, the Family Part dismissed the complaint and dissolved the temporary restraining order. Thereafter, J.W.D. sent another letter to the prosecutor's office, again requesting the return of his guns and identification card. After conducting an investigation, the prosecutor filed an objection to the return of the weapons and identification card to J.W.D.
Thereafter, a weapons hearing was held before the same Judge who had presided over the domestic violence hearing. At the Conclusion of that hearing, the trial court found that return of the guns and card to J.W.D. would not be in the interest of public health, safety or welfare and, further, that J.W.D. posed a threat to his wife. The trial court, therefore, ordered forfeiture of the guns and identification card.
The Appellate Division agreed that the Domestic Violence Act authorized seizure of the guns and identification card even after the dismissal of the domestic violence complaint. However, it took a different view of the facts and concluded that J.W.D. did not pose a risk to public safety or to his ex-wife. Accordingly, the court ordered the return of the guns and the card.
The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.
HELD: The legislature intended that courts not return guns to a defendant in a domestic violence action, even after the dismissal of the complaint, if the court finds that the defendant poses a threat to public health, safety, or welfare.
1. Although the broad purpose of the Domestic Violence Act is to protect victims, the Act does not expressly permit the court to authorize the prosecutor to retain a defendant's weapons on dismissal of a domestic violence complaint and specifically mandates the return of the weapons if the court determines that the domestic violence situation no longer exists. (pp. 7-9)
2. When a statute's plain language would lead to a result contrary to the intent of the Legislature, courts are not confined to a literal reading of that language. (p. 9)
3. Every effort should be made to harmonize laws relating to the same subject matter. (pp. 9-10)
4. Ordinarily, an appellate court should accept a trial court's findings of fact that are supported by substantial credible evidence and should not disturb those findings unless to do so would work an inJustice. (p. 11)
5. Because the lower courts reached conflicting Conclusions by emphasizing different facts, under the circumstances, the better approach is to remand the matter to the trial court to reconsider whether J.W.D. poses a threat to public health, safety, or welfare. (pp. 11-13)
Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED IN PART and REVERSED IN PART, and the matter is REMANDED to the Family Part.
JUSTICES HANDLER, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, STEIN and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE POLLOCK's opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ did not participate.
The opinion of the Court was ...