In State v. Oscar Ramirez (A-1-21/085943) (Decided November 21, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey established a new framework of procedures and considerations that courts must use when prosecutors seek to protect the home addresses of sexual assault victims during the discovery process. As described by the court, the new test reflects the needs to balance the “conflicting rights of a sexual assault victim — to decline to participate in an investigation and to enjoy solitude at home — and a person accused of a sexual offense — to receive an effective defense, to assert the right to confrontation and compulsory process of witnesses, and to due process.”
Facts of State v. Oscar Ramirez
D.C., a twenty-three-year-old woman, was sexually assaulted shortly after midnight on October 25, 2019, in a North Bergen cemetery. The victim stated that the attacker held a box cutter to her neck and told her to be quiet or he would kill her. Based on surveillance footage collected from that night, the police identified defendant Oscar Ramirez as the attacker. Laboratory results matched defendant’s DNA to swabs taken from the victim, and defendant was charged with multiple offenses related to the incident.
When supplying pretrial discovery to defense counsel, the prosecution redacted the address where the victim lived at the time of the offense and also declined to provide the new address to which she moved after the attack. To justify withholding that information, the prosecution moved for a protective order under Rule 3:13-3(e), citing that the victim did not want her address to be provided to the defense, that she was afraid defendant or someone close to him would locate her, and that she did not want to speak to the defense before trial. Defense counsel opposed the motion, arguing that Rule 3:13-3(e) required the prosecution to provide the victim’s contact information to the defense, even if defendant himself is not allowed to have access.
The motion judge ordered that the address be disclosed to defendant’s counsel, who would not be permitted to disclose any of the information to the defendant. As emphasized by the New Jersey Supreme Court, the judge’s written decision did not discuss the statutory or constitutional rights of sexual assault victims, beyond citing the New Jersey Supreme Court’s recognition in State v. R.W., 104 N.J. 14, 28 (1986), that there is a “heightened need to protect victims from trauma and intimidation in sexual assault cases.” More specifically, the judge did not cite to the Victim’s Rights Amendment, the Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights, or the Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights. The Appellate Division reversed, stressing that “to permit defense investigators to access the victim’s home, against her expressed instructions,” would violate her right to privacy.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Oscar Ramirez
The New Jersey Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s decision and provided guidance for handling such issues going forward. “We hold that the resolution of such motions requires careful judicial oversight and a sensitive balancing of the competing interests,” Judge Jack M. Sabatino wrote on behalf of the unanimous court. “To guide that process, we provide a gloss to Rule 3:13-3 to ensure that a defendant’s counsel and agents do not have unfettered access to a sexual assault victim’s home address through pretrial discovery, while also requiring the trial court to consider, in its discretion, judicially supervised ‘pathways’ for: (1) conveying to the victim the defense’s reasons for seeking to contact the victim; and (2) verifying that, after being neutrally informed of those reasons, the victim still declines to be interviewed or to participate in the defense’s investigation.”
Under the new guidance set forth in the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision, the prosecution must first move for a protective order under Rule 3:13-3(e). The motion must be supported by a sworn statement from the victim attesting the victim does not want the address disclosed to the defendant or defense counsel. The defense may then file a response with the court expressing reasons why a protective order should be denied and, in particular, why the defense needs the victim’s address.
If the defense asserts it wants the address, among other things, for the purpose of contacting and interviewing the victim, the court must then consider various “supervised pathway” options designed to assure that the victim’s decision is personal and also that the victim has been made aware of the defense’s reasons for wanting the address and to make contact. The supervised pathway options include, but are not limited to, a written request by the defense that the court may permit to be conveyed to the victim through the prosecutor or court staff; an in camera interview of the victim by the judge; a limited call between defense counsel and the victim; or another court-devised option that would fairly balance the victim’s rights to refrain from participation against the defendant’s rights to prepare a defense.
“After implementing one or more of those options, the court shall rule on whether good cause for a protective order has been shown under Rule 3:13- 3(e)(1), and, if so, what court-imposed restrictions or conditions shall be observed,” Judge Sabatino explained. “In fashioning a protective order under these procedures, the trial court shall accord heavy weight to the sexual assault victim’s interests in having solitude and privacy at that victim’s residence in the wake of a highly traumatic experience,” stated Sabatino. “The home can be a place of refuge for a victim.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court further advised that the “home-is-off-limits” presumption can be overcome only if the defense demonstrates to the court an exceptional and compelling need to permit such contact. “In the rare instance in which the court finds the presumption is overcome, it shall specify within the protective order reasonable limitations on the time, place, and manner of such at-home contact by the defense team,” Judge Sabatino wrote. “The defense may not harass the victim.”
So that the process it outlined can be implemented in the case, the court remanded the matter.