On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Monmouth County, Docket No. FO-13-448-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Fasciale.
Following a bench trial in the Family Part, a judge found defendant, Stephen Langan, guilty of fourth-degree contempt, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-9(b) (Count One); and petty disorderly persons defiant trespass, N.J.S.A. 2C:18-3(b)(1) (Count Two). The trial judge sentenced defendant to concurrent terms of one year probation and required defendant to attend and complete a domestic violence program. Defendant contends the judge erred by not dismissing the charges and by failing to consider his affirmative defense. We disagree and affirm.
Defendant and C.M. were married for twelve years and had two children together. On July 22, 2008, while still married to defendant but after she filed for divorce, C.M. obtained a temporary restraining order (TRO) that barred defendant from returning to the marital home and prohibited defendant from having any contact with her. On August 11, 2008, C.M. and defendant consented to a new TRO with an understanding that "[e]ither party can make an application for a final hearing before the court." Defendant stipulated that he was served with the new TRO.
The new TRO permitted defendant to visit the children under conditions "as arranged between counsel in the FM litigation." Defendant was allowed to pick up and drop off the children at the curbside of the marital home. He was not allowed at the home for any other purpose. The new TRO continued to bar defendant from having any form of communication with C.M.
On March 6, 2009, around 7:00 p.m., C.M. observed defendant from her kitchen window standing at her mailbox on the property of the marital home. C.M. stepped out onto her porch and observed defendant going through her mail in the mailbox. Defendant remained on C.M.'s property for approximately five to ten minutes. C.M. reported the incident immediately to the police, and after defendant left, C.M. discovered that defendant had left a support check in an unstamped envelope in her mailbox, and had opened her mail.
Defendant testified at the trial that he did not appear at the home that night because he was at a restaurant until around 8:30 p.m. His friend, Patrick Murphy, testified that he was at the restaurant with defendant until approximately 9:00 p.m. Another friend, Michael Zitzner, testified that he was with defendant and Murphy at the restaurant and that he offered to deliver the support check to C.M.'s home that night. Defendant testified that he accepted Zitzner's offer.
C.M. was clear that she recognized defendant going through her mail on her property. Zitzner was approximately five feet three inches tall, had blond hair, and was very thin. Defendant was six feet one inch tall and weighed 240 pounds. C.M. is "very sure" that she did not confuse defendant for Zitzner.
The judge concluded that C.M. made a credible witness and stated that "[s]he was quiet, testified in a relaxed fashion. She had a good recall of the facts." The judge found that defendant, Zitzner, and Murphy did not make good witnesses. The judge observed that Zitzner "was defensive, and very flip during the entire course of his testimony." He also found Murphy's testimony "incredible under the circumstances." The judge explained that "[March 6] was not a day where the defendant was supposed to visit the children, and he had no right or purpose to be [on C.M.'s property]." The judge found that the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant violated the new TRO and that he committed an act of defiant trespass.
On appeal, defendant argues that the State failed to prove the elements of defiant trespass, and that he knowingly and purposefully violated the new TRO. He contends that the judge erred by not considering his affirmative defense under N.J.S.A. 2C:18-3(d)(3), and erred by not dismissing the charges as de minimis infractions pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:2-11.
"The scope of appellate review of a trial court's fact-finding function is limited. The general rule is that findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). Furthermore, due to the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in such matters, we defer to a family court's fact-finding. Id. at 413. We grant substantial deference to a trial court's findings of fact and conclusions of law, which will only be disturbed if they are "'manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence.'" Rova Farms Resort, ...