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New Jersey Case Law

Submitted February 22, 1999 – Decided March 16, 1999

Key Excerpts from trial transcript:

This is an appeal from a weapons forfeiture decision after a prior dismissal of a domestic violence complaint.  John Silvaria,  owner of the subject weapons, appeals from the Family Part Judge’s decision ruling that he must forfeit his weapons as he was found in the forfeiture case to “pose a threat to public health, safety, or welfare”…

Silvaria argues that the judge erred in ordering forfeiture, and specifically in treating his estranged wife as an expert witness on mental illness…

Prior to the events that gave rise to the confiscation of  Silvaria’s weapons, he and his wife mutually agreed to separate and obtain a divorce. A consent order was entered on December 31, 1997 giving Mrs. Silvaria sole custody of their two-and-one-half year old daughter. The consent order also included visitation and child support arrangements…

Mrs. Silvaria stated that “[she] was actually helping him move out and it  was…going very well, very cooperative, it was a team effort.”  However, as the day went on, Mrs. Silvaria inquired when her husband was going to leave.

At some point in the evening, Silvaria approached his wife desiring to talk about what was going wrong with their marriage.  Because Mrs. Silvaria was holding her daughter in her arms and one of  Mrs. Silvaria’s friends was in another room of the home, she felt it was “not the time nor the place” to discuss this matter and an argument ensued. Mrs. Silvaria testified that her husband “became louder and louder and got closer to closer [sic] to her.”

…Mrs. Silvaria called the Oaklyn Police. When police arrived, Mrs. Silvaria insisted that  “she wanted her husband out of the house, he was supposed to move out, get all of his things and just leave.” The officer on the scene described Mrs. Silvaria’s demeanor as “very scared, fearful.” The officer said Mr. Silvaria was very cooperative.

The police confiscated three rifles, two shotguns, a “BB” gun, a bow and arrows, a sword and various ammunition that apparently had already been loaded in Silvaria’s truck. At the police station, Silvaria indicated that he owned a pistol, which he kept locked in a gun cabinet at the marital residence. A police officer returned to the marital residence and confiscated the pistol from that location.

On December 16, 1997, the State served notice of its intent to seek forfeiture of Silvaria’s weapons. However, because it thereafter became known that Silvaria had moved to Wisconsin, Mrs. Silvaria and the State had no objections to returning the weapons to Silvaria and that was done pursuant to court order of December 31, 1997.

Although Silvaria had left the state of New Jersey, Mrs. Silvaria subsequently filed a domestic violence complaint on February 13, 1998 based upon several telephone contacts with Silvaria during the weeks following his relocation to Wisconsin. The first telephone call occurred when Silvaria called to offer Christmas greetings. Eventually, the conversation deteriorated and Mrs. Silvaria decided that it would “not be a good idea” for Silvaria to see his daughter over the New Year’s holiday.

A second phone call occurred on February 7, 1998. At that time Silvaria called to arrange a date to collect some additional possessions from the marital residence. Mrs. Silvaria decided it was “not a good idea” for her husband to come alone and remove the remaining possessions.

Also during this phone call, Silvaria apparently indicated that he was going to reclaim his weapons.  A third telephone call occurred on February 11, 1998. During this conversation Silvaria asserted that he wanted joint custody of his daughter and that he would stop support payments. He also indicated that he wanted to take his daughter to visit her grandmother in Massachusetts. Mrs. Silvaria would not consent and Silvaria is quoted as saying “We’ll see, we’ll see who’s going to stop me from seeing my daughter whenever and with whomever I want.”

Also during this conversation, Mrs. Silvaria inquired about the guns asking Silvaria, “And where are you going to put them?” Silvaria replied “I certainly can’t tell you that.” Mrs. Silvaria said this made her feel vulnerable because Silvaria was concealing that information. Mrs. Silvaria testified, “I knew he was coming [to New Jersey] to get the guns, I wasn’t sure what he was going to do with them.”

Two days later Mrs. Silvaria filed a domestic violence complaint based on these phone calls. After a hearing on February 25, 1998, a different Judge found that Mrs. Silvaria failed to prove domestic violence and ordered dismissal of her complaint.

A few days later, the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, apparently at the behest of Mrs. Silvaria, moved for reconsideration.

While most of the testimony presented during the reconsideration forfeiture hearing concerned events referred to inthe dismissed domestic violence complaint, Mrs. Silvaria also testified to Silvaria’s use of the drug Paxil and her former husband’s mental condition. Mrs. Silvaria described Paxil as an anti-depressant drug used both to treat depression in “an agitated form” as well as to control the behavior of persons suffering from “intermittent explosive disorder.”

Mrs. Silvaria cited as the basis for her assessment her qualifications as a certified clinical nurse specialist and as an advanced practice nurse in mental health and psychiatric nursing…

Based upon her knowledge of her former husband’s use of the  drug Paxil, Mrs. Silvaria said during the 1998 forfeiture hearing that Silvaria suffered from a psychiatric condition causing outbursts of rage. Mrs. Silvaria thought that Silvaria’s disagreements with her, as expressed in his earlier phone calls, especially his reaction to her denial of his requests to visit his daughter, resulted from a psychiatric problem and a failure to take Paxil to control it.

Nevertheless, she was unable to say with any degree of certainty whether any of Silvaria’s outbursts were symptomatic of a mental disorder, or whether they were simply normal emotional reactions.

Silvaria appeared pro se and admitted that he was, for a time, taking Paxil for treatment of depression and anxiety. He denied, however, that he took Paxil to prevent “outbursts.” Silvaria also indicated that he stopped taking Paxil in August of 1996.

The judge accepted Mrs. Silvaria as an expert on the subject of psychiatric behavioral problems. Relying upon her “expert testimony,” the judge vacated his previous order and ordered forfeiture of Silvaria’s weapons saying:

On appeal, Silvaria challenges the judge’s decision on the ground that there was no evidence that he posed a threat to any person or to the public health, safety or welfare. He also argues that the judge erred in treating Mrs. Silvaria as an expert.

The question on appeal is whether Mrs. Silvaria’s fact testimony was sufficient to sustain the judge’s decision. The judge…specifically stated he relied upon the expert testimony of Silvaria’s estranged wife who basically intimates that Silvaria suffers from a violent form of depression and that it was “possible” that Silvaria’s actions amounted to a threat to the public welfare.

The evidence does not support such a conclusion. Indeed, the judge’s conclusions at the forfeiture hearing were at best speculative, and based on events which were previously found not to have constituted domestic violence at a domestic violence hearing. There was no warrant to revisit the findings in the earlier domestic violence proceeding at the forfeiture hearing. Hence, reversal is required.

Further discussion is necessary on other issues raised. Silvaria argues that because Mrs. Silvaria is not a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist, she is incompetent to give expert testimony on mental illness. Silvaria relies on State v. Frost, 242 N.J. Super. 601 (App. Div. 1990), for the proposition that a “witness should generally be a licensed member of that profession” when providing expert testimony in a particular profession. Id. at 615.

This argument presents an overstatement of the law. Depending on the matter, such a limitation that all experts must possess a professional license is too broad. It is widely recognized that an expert witness on a medical subject does not have to be a person duly licensed to practice in that particular field of medicine. See State v. Hyde, 292 N.J. Super. 159, 167 (App. Div. 1996). Whether a witness has sufficient knowledge, learning, and experience to state an opinion as to one’s mental condition as an expert is largely for the discretion of the trial court.

Thus, the fact that Mrs. Silvaria is not a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist goes more to the weight of her testimony, not to its admissibility. Although we recognize the discretion in the trial court to determine who may give expert testimony under our rules of evidence, it appears that Mrs. Silvaria does not possess the necessary qualifications to opine with respect to a medical diagnosis of her former husband’s mental condition. Her qualifications as stated at the hearing were not adequate. Aside from potential bias problems, Mrs. Silvaria did not identify the subject of her master’s degree.

Because Paxil can be given for a variety of mental illnesses, it is self-serving for Mrs. Silvaria to speculate that her former husband was taking the drug for treatment of the most dangerous and violent of the possible forms of depression. Further, she had not lived with her former husband since

…testimony adduced at the forfeiture hearing produced nothing that would rise to a level of threat to the public health, safety or welfare such as would warrant forfeiture of Silvaria’s weapons.