June 23, 2008
IN THE MATTER OF THE SEIZURE OF WEAPONS BELONGING TO DOMINICK PARADISE
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FO-02-263-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued January 8, 2008
Before Judges Coburn, Fuentes and Chambers.
Defendant Dominick Paradise appeals from the order of the Chancery Division granting the State's application pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:25-21 for the forfeiture of certain firearms and related ammunition owned by defendant. Specifically, the court ordered the forfeiture of: (1) a Smith and Wesson revolver, serial number 438X2; (2) a Sig Sauer pistol, serial number M537120; (3) one loaded magazine; (4) a box of ammunition; and (5) defendant's firearms purchaser identification card, number 458464B.
Defendant now argues that the forfeiture order should be vacated because the trial court's decision was not supported by competent evidence, and because he presented sufficient proofs establishing his competency to own firearms. After reviewing the record, we reject these arguments and affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Jerejian in his oral opinion delivered from the bench on June 27, 2006. We summarize the salient facts from the record developed before the trial court during the eight days of hearings.
Defendant served as a police officer with the Township of North Bergen Police Department from 1998 until September 2001, when he retired due to job-related injuries. He was married to Kim Paradise; the couple had two children. During the marriage, Mrs. Paradise filed three complaints alleging that her husband had committed acts of domestic violence against her.
The first incident occurred on January 4, 2005. According to Mrs. Paradise, she and defendant had a verbal dispute concerning the care of their children. This argument escalated to the point of requiring police intervention. By the conclusion of this incident, Mrs. Paradise secured a temporary restraining order (TRO) against defendant after he had begun screaming in the street in front of her house, suggesting that she was on drugs. No final restraints were ever issued and the case was ultimately dismissed.
Kim Paradise applied for the second restraining order in March 2005. A TRO was issued, but again did not turn into a permanent order. In this instance, defendant sent an e-mail to one of Mrs. Paradise's friends, threatening to return to the marital residence, in violation of a previously issued civil restraining order. According to Mrs. Paradise, defendant wanted to retrieve his weapons from the home. The complaint did not allege that defendant made any physical threats against either Mrs. Paradise or a man whom she was seeing at the time. Defendant's weapons were seized, however, as part of the relief contained in the TRO.
The Judge hearing the domestic violence case ordered defendant to submit to a psychological evaluation. After the evaluation was completed on May 17, 2005, the court issued an order dismissing the matter and returning defendant's weapons.
The third domestic violence complaint resulting in a TRO occurred in August 2005. Pursuant to a child custody agreement, Mrs. Paradise was the residential parent, and defendant retained the right to parenting time on Wednesdays from 4:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., and every other weekend.
By mutual agreement, the Wednesday August 24, 2005 parenting time was changed to Thursday, August 25. Defendant allegedly told his former wife that he would not return the children to the marital residence at the end of his parenting time, requiring Mrs. Paradise to get them herself. Because this deviated from the agreed upon practices, Mrs. Paradise sent defendant a complaining e-mail in which she asserted that his behavior was tantamount to "parental kidnapping."
On Thursday, August 25, Mrs. Paradise arrived home at approximately 4:00 p.m. Defendant was waiting outside the residence, having come to pick up the children for his parenting time. The children were not home. After attending to some household chores, Mrs. Paradise left, intending to pick up the girls and bring them back to her house so defendant could take them for his parenting time. As she was leaving the house, Mrs. Paradise rolled down her car window and asked defendant whether he planned to return the children to their home at the end of the evening, as she had demanded in the e-mail. When defendant asked her: what e-mail?, she handed him a copy.
After reading the e-mail, Dominick threw it back in the car and said, "fucking threat, everything's a threat to you." He continued: "Keep pushing my buttons, honey pie, keep pushing them."
On the recommendation of her attorney, Mrs. Paradise had begun keeping a tape-recorder handy when interacting with defendant. Thus, Mrs. Paradise was recording this exchange. When defendant noticed the tape-recorder, he backed away from the car and said, "You're fucking dead." Mrs. Paradise then called 911. At this point, defendant said that he was going to cut himself and blame it on his former wife.
When a local police officer responded to the scene, defendant showed the officer two cuts on his left forearm. Defendant directed the officer to a steak knife lying in a nearby bush, accusing Mrs. Paradise of having stabbed him. After questioning Mrs. Paradise, the officer charged defendant with false swearing and filing a false report.*fn1 On August 26, 2005, the North Bergen Police Department seized defendant's weapons from his home.
Along with this history of domestic violence complaints against defendant, the trial court heard other testimony of defendant's threatening behavior. On June 1, 2005, Lee Berman, defendant's brother-in-law, was traveling to Mrs. Paradise's house when he noticed defendant's black jeep drive by the residence. Aware that defendant was not permitted near the house, except when he was there to pick up the couple's children, Berman began to follow him. At one point, defendant got out of his car, approached Berman's car, and yelled, "fuck you asshole, you've been following me for twenty minutes, you're dead." As Berman drove away, defendant began to follow him, trying to cut him off. Berman telephoned the police and gave them his mother-in-law's address, where he was heading. All the while, defendant continued his aggressive driving, trying to cut Berman off on the road.
Ultimately Berman reached his mother-in-law's house, where he was met by the police. Berman filed motor vehicle complaints against defendant, which he later voluntarily withdrew. But before Berman left the scene, defendant drove past him, yelling "fuck you asshole." At trial, defendant denied this version of events.
Against this evidence, Judge Jerejian concluded that the State had met its burden of proving defendant's disability to own and possess firearms. That is, given the evidence presented, forfeiture is authorized because the issuance of an ownership license here "would not be in the interest of the public health, safety or welfare." N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3c(5). As we noted in State v. Cordoma, 372 N.J. Super. 524, 534-35 (App. Div. 2004).
This broadly worded disqualification criterion eludes precise definition. We are satisfied, however, that it must be liberally construed to effectuate the overarching public policy objectives of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. That is, to afford "maximum protection" to victims of domestic violence. A trial court must therefore be mindful that individuals who pose a general threat to the public health, safety or welfare may pose an even more immediate and defined threat to those who have been the direct recipients of their violent conduct. That threat is not necessarily extinguished after the vacation of judicially imposed restraints.
Thus, a judicial declaration that a defendant poses a threat to the public health, safety or welfare involves, by necessity, a fact-sensitive analysis. It requires a careful consideration of both the individual history of defendant's interaction with the former plaintiff in the domestic violence matter, as well as an assessment of the threat a defendant may impose to the general public. [(Citations omitted).]
In this light, we are satisfied that Judge Jerejian's findings and ultimate legal conclusion are well-supported by the competent evidence presented.