Harassment, charged under 2C:33-4 is one of those charges in New Jersey that doesn’t sound particularly serious. The vast majority of times it isn’t, and is charged as a petty disorderly persons offense, carrying no more than a $500 fine and up to 30 days in county jail. When charged in this fashion it is handled in municipal court. Many times the conduct is either a de minimis infraction, or does not actually rise to the level of harassment, as a matter of law. When representing clients charged under these circumstances, resolution is usually easily achieved with a dismissal, or downgrade to a non-criminal offense such as a local ordinance. However, there are circumstances when Harassment can be brought as a fourth degree indictable offense, which is a much more serious legal situation, and why you should be familiar with New Jersey Harassment laws.
What is Harassment? An actor is guilty of harassment if they have the purpose to harass another, and they make a communication anonymously, at extremely inconvenient hours (like, late at night) or use offensively coarse language or communicate in any other manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm. A person could also be found guilty of Harassment if they subject another to striking, kicking, shoving, or other offensive touching, or they threaten to do so. If a person engages in any conduct which is alarming, or repeats conduct in a way which has the intent to seriously annoy or alarm an individual, they may also be found guilty of Harassment. All of this conduct by itself would constitute a petty disorderly persons offense. However, if a person is on probation or parole for any indictable offense, a new charge of Harassment automatically becomes a fourth degree offense, even when it is in no way related to the prior charge. A person will also be charged with a fourth degree offense if they are serving a prison sentence at the time of the alleged Harassment.
It has been my experience that charging a fourth degree indictable offense for the same conduct that would have been charged as a petty disorderly persons offense simply because a person is on probation for a totally unrelated violation, is a waste of time, tax dollars, and court resources. It accomplishes nothing, legally. It doesn’t even serve a deterrent effect because few people (other than lawyers) even know that Harassment can become a serious offense under these circumstances. I find it difficult to find an explanation as to the benefit of constructing the law this way, and as an experienced New Jersey criminal defense attorney, I find it a bit unfair to charge defendants like this. It has also been my experience that on the other end of the spectrum, people frequently file harassment charges simply because they are mildly annoyed with someone, or they don’t care for something someone has said. Perhaps they feel offended. This is not the same thing as harassment. If you get into a mutual argument with someone, you aren’t being harassed. If someone calls you a jerk, you haven’t been harassed. If someone calls you repeatedly because you owe them money, you aren’t being harassed. If your ex-spouse calls you at three o’clock in the morning because your child hasn’t come home yet, you haven’t been harassed. Judges hate when Harassment charges are brought because of petty grievances, and are quick to grant motions for dismissal. While Harassment isn’t typically serious, it is charged under title 2C, and should be handled by a criminal defense lawyer, even if the charge has no merit. The only thing worse than being charged with an offense that has no substance, is being convicted for that offense.