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Court: man should not have been jailed in child support case

In Tennessee, parents who fail to pay child support in violation of a court order can be sent to jail on civil contempt or criminal contempt charges. Because the criminal justice system affords defendants special protections that don't apply in civil cases, the distinction between the two types of contempt charges in a child support case can be very important.

We mention this today in connection with a recent Tennessee appellate court decision that resulted in the dismissal of the contempt charges, conviction and sentence of a 33-year-old Lewisburg man for failing to pay child support. The reason? The man was denied his due process rights to a grand jury review of the contempt charges and a trial by jury. Without due process, he should not have had to spend any time in jail let alone 183 days.

What happened? In June 2011, an assistant prosecutor asked a Tennessee circuit court judge to find the man guilty of contempt for failing to pay child support. At the time, the man in question was actually living with and supporting the mother of one of his children and others. Because that mother and the man's child received public benefits, however, the man was actually obligated to pay child support to the state.

When the man didn't make those payments, the prosecutor said he had no choice but to act and also noted that the man "refused to have a lawyer appointed ... refused to hire a lawyer ... and demanded a hearing," which he proceeded to lose because he hadn't paid the child support as required.

Coincidentally or not, the man did have legal representation for the successful appeal.

Source: Marshall County Tribune, "Man serves time in error," Clint Confehr, Sept. 19, 2012

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