A Balancing Act: The Rights of the Accused v. The Rights of the Alleged Victim

The process of criminal pretrial discovery, which involves an exchange of information between parties, is guided by specific rules and limitations. Protective orders, for example, may limit what information is provided to the opposing party or to whom such information may be provided.

Although restricting information may seem like a detriment to the party seeking certain discovery, such restrictions are sometimes justified by public policy considerations such as fairness and privacy.

On June 4th, 2021, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey decided in State v. Ramirez, that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the State’s motion for a protective order to exclude a victim’s home address from discovery made available to the Defendant and his counsel. The Court came to this conclusion based on (1) the nature of the alleged sexual assault, and (2) the relevant matters of public policy.

This case against the Defendant stems from his involvement in an alleged sexual assault that occurred in 2019. During the alleged assault, the Defendant held a boxcutter to the victim’s throat and threatened to kill her if she sought help. After his arrest, the Defendant made a few incriminating statements to investigators and even admitted to committing murder while in Mexico.

As pre-trial discovery began, the State sought a protective order to keep the victim’s home address confidential because the victim was traumatized from the assault and feared for her life.

Defense counsel, however, argued that excluding the victim’s address would undermine the Defendant’s constitutional right to present a complete defense because it would place an undue burden on their investigation.

Although the State’s motion was granted in part, the protective order heeded the defense counsel’s suggestion that the victim’s home address be made available to only defense counsel and their investigators.

The Appellate Division, however, found this protective order to be ineffective due to the violent nature of the alleged sexual assault and the related public policy considerations.

The Court noted that not only did the Defendant allegedly hold a boxcutter to the victim’s throat and threatened to kill her if she sought help, but he also admitted to investigators that he had previously committed murder in another country. Considering the victim’s trauma from the alleged assault, together with the Defendant’s admitted violence in the past, the Court recognized the importance of keeping the victim’s home address confidential.

The Court also emphasized New Jersey’s commitment to the rights of crime victims. In fact, New Jersey has implemented and enforced legislation such as the Victims’ Rights Amendment, the Crime Victim Bill of Rights and the Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights. Together, these laws entitle crime victims to the protection of their privacy as well as freedom from intimidation, harassment, or embarrassment.

Although the Defendant maintains the right to present a complete defense, the Court ultimately decided that his rights must be balanced with the rights of the victim. In other words, the Court found that providing the defense team with the victim’s home address despite the circumstances would be unfair.

Explaining the balancing act courts implement in each phase of a criminal case is something that we do for all our clients in Jersey City and throughout Hudson County.  If you are currently facing criminal charges, please do not hesitate to call our office for a free consultation.

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