In a very important decision on child support enforcement the Minnesota Supreme court ruled on Wednesday, Feb 12th, that a Rochester man who ignored years of demands to pay child support for his two children cannot be punished, because there is no proof he didn’t otherwise care for them.
The statute in Minnesota law that dictates child support collection enforcement clearly states that a non custodial parent who fails to provide “care and support” for a child is to be held criminally liable. In this case the defendant, Larry Nelson who was convicted three years ago for felony failure to pay child support, argued that the court could not prove he did not care for and support them. Prosecutors countered that the phrase “care and support” refers solely to financial obligations.
In a split 4-3 decision, the majority of the Supreme Court sided with Nelson, reasoning that the law was unclear.
Writing for the majority, Justice David Stras wrote: “It is odd to imply … that the word ‘support’ alone refers to a monetary obligation and that the phrase ‘care and support’ means the same thing.”
Justice David Lillehaug wrote in his dissent that the ruling “handcuffs” the state in prosecuting others who ignore court orders to financially support their kids.
“It is possible that, as a result of the majority’s holding and in the absence of swift legislative correction, Minnesota could become the only state without viable criminal sanctions for failure to pay child support,” he wrote.
As expected, legislators are promising quick and definitive action to make the statue less ambiguous.
“I think the ball is back in the Legislature’s hands, and I think we will take a good look at it this spring,” said Minnesota Senate Jucidiary Chairman Ron Latz, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.
“We certainly want to have the capability for our prosecutors to bring felony charges against someone who has failed to pay their financial obligations … If we need to clean up the statute to make sure that it is an available criminal charge that can be successfully prosecuted, then we’ll find a way to do that, I expect.”
Fathers for Justice U.S., the American arm of the Fathers for Justice movement started in the U.K. is pleased with the ruling.
“We at Fathers4Justice have stated for years, the act of supporting one’s children is not just about money!” wrote Donald Tenn in an article posted yesterday on their website. “There are many more important factors to be considered when it comes to the term child support, factors which most states, in their lust for federal funding, completely ignore at each and every opportunity.”