Los Angeles, CA–The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals just made a good ruling on the issue of jailing child-support debtors. As we’ve discussed on many occasions, while it is certainly true that there are fathers who do not come through for their children, many child-support obligors are punished and even jailed simply because they are too poor to pay the child-support that the family law system demands of them.
The California Department of Child Support Services itself recently recognized this in a report — to learn more, see Glenn’s co-authored column New LA County Campaign Against ‘Deadbeat Dads” Unfairly Targets Low-Income Fathers (Los Angeles Daily News, 3/26/08).
Court–Even in Child Support Cases, the Burden of Proof Is Still on the Prosecution
One of the ways that child-support obligors’ rights are violated is that in some cases the burden of proof has been shifted from the state — where it normally lies in criminal prosecutions — onto the debtor. The result has at times been de facto debtors prisons for child-support obligors. According to this story:
“West Virginia legislators violated state and national constitutions when they forced fathers facing felony child support charges to prove they couldn’t pay, the Supreme Court of Appeals decided May 23.
“The Justices unanimously erased a law stating that in child support prosecutions ‘the defendant’s alleged inability to reasonably provide the required support may be raised only as an affirmative defense, after reasonable notice to the State.’
“The law ‘unconstitutionally shifts to a defendant the burden of disproving an element of the offense,’ Justice Robin Davis wrote. ‘We have previously observed that it is a foundation of criminal law that the State must prove all the elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.’
“The law violates due process under Article III of the West Virginia Constitution and the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, she wrote.”
The full article can be seen at Justices say Legislature wrong on felony child support (West Virginia Record, 5/29/08).
An Unsympathetic Defendant
While we support this Court’s ruling, we’re not terribly enamored of the defendant in whose favor of a court ruled. Gabriel Stamm was ordered to pay a whopping $167.52 a month in child support. Apparently he claims he was unable to pay it, and maybe that is true, but it seems unlikely.
Every day we deal with child-support obligors who, at least as the facts are laid out in this article, are far more sympathetic than Gabriel Stamm. On a larger level, the important point is the legal principle, and its impact on child-support obligors as a whole, as opposed to the defendant in this particular case.