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Criminal Statute for Non Payment of Child Support is Not Constitutionally Vague

Posted on : October 10, 2016, By:  Christopher Hildebrand
Criminal Statute for Non-Payment of Child Support is Not Constitutionally Vague

Criminal Statute For Non Payment of Child Support is Not Constitutionally Vague

If a criminal law is so unclear that people cannot understand what it means, it cannot be enforced. The Constitution prohibits a state from enforcing criminal sanctions under a vague law. Sometimes the courts “beef up” the specifics of a statute by looking at other laws related to it. The Court of Appeals discussed vague child support statutes in State v. Buhman, 887 P. 2d 582 (1994).

Facts of the Case

Mr. Buhman did not provide financial support for his minor child for three years, 1987 through 1990. He had the means to do so. The state charged him with a felony crime of knowingly failing to furnish “reasonable support” for his child. He moved to dismiss the indictment. He argued the statute was unconstitutionally vague since it doesn’t define the term “reasonable.” The trial court agreed. The State of Arizona appealed.

Jennifer, thank you for being my attorney. I could not have been more pleased with the outcome of my family court hearing. Everything you have done for me throughout this case reflects in the final ruling of the judge. You helped me keep my head together and taught me a lot about myself as a person. I learned so much about my life from observing and listening to you. I will take all the advice you gave me to continue taking responsibility for my choices, continue to put the kids' needs first, and always stay truthful. Your diligence, dedication, and persistence in my case made what seemed impossible, possible. You are a wonderful person and an amazing attorney and I am stronger and more confident because of you.
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Despite the unfortunate situation I found myself in, Chris Hildebrand @ Hildebrand Law helped me maneuver every step with professionalism, expertise, and even a sensitivity that was an added bonus.Chris and his staff helped me even when I didn't know I needed the help. In other words. . . they made sure we did not leave anything undone. And in the rare instance we needed the expertise of another professional, Chris knew exactly who to recommend.Chris also knew, because of his experience, what to anticipate down the road of litigation. That meant we were better prepared to meet the challenges head on, which lead to a more equitable and fair outcome. I appreciated that Chris did his best to meet my every need in a timely fashion, even if I had a simple question that required only a phone call or e-mail or if we needed to talk face-to-face.I highly recommend Chris Hildebrand @ Hildebrand Law, PC.
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I cannot express enough how thankful I am that I found Hildrebrand Law. Chris Hildebrand is an excellent attorney who has my best interests in mind and always encourages me to do the right thing regardless of what the opposing party is doing. Chris knows family law very well and relies on that knowledge to format options and solutions for each situation that may arise. He knows what the Court expects and what will and will not be tolerated. He has attempted to settle this case quickly and as inexpensively as possible from the start. His paralegal, Laura, is remarkable. She is organized, quick to respond, and compassionate. Chris is well prepared with a binder full of detailed and organized information and that is likely due to her thorough skills and expertise. While getting a divorce that was unexpected is a painful and difficult process, Chris and Laura treat my family and I like friends rather than another just "client." I am hopeful that I do not need to recommend divorce lawyers to anyone in the future but if I do, Hildebrand Law will be a recommendation I would give hands down.
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06:53 27 Sep 14

Is Void for Vagueness Issue “Ripe” for Determination

Criminal Statute for Non-Payment of Child Support is Not Constitutionally Vague.

Criminal Statute for Non-Payment of Child Support is Not Constitutionally Vague.

Generally, a court determines whether a criminal statute is unconstitutionally vague by applying the law to the case facts. Since no fact finding was done in this case, the State argued that the issue was not “ripe” for determination. This was the ruling in Norton v. Superior Court, 829 P.2d 345 (1992).

However, the Court of Appeals found that this case was different from the Norton case. In Norton, the Court had discretionary jurisdiction, the choice of whether to address the issue or not. Here, the Court’s jurisdiction is mandatory, obliging it to decide any issue raised. In addition, the Court noted that this case raises an exception to general considerations of ripeness. It raises the issue of whether the statute is so vague that it is not possible to enforce it constitutionally.

Void for Vagueness Standard

A law is unconstitutionally vague if persons of ordinary intelligence won’t understand what it prohibits. It is also unconstitutionally vague if it does not provide explicit standards for those who will apply it. Arizona law makes it a crime for a parent to knowingly fail to furnish “reasonable support” for a minor child.

The trial court found the statute unconstitutionally vague because it doesn’t define “reasonable support”. The statute doesn’t involve the reasonableness of conduct or state of mind. Instead, it turns on nonpayment of a “reasonable” quantity of support. Reasonable support might mean different things to different people. The statute imposes a variable scale of criminal conduct that leaves the fact finder without guidance.

 

Looking to Related Statutes for Details of Reasonableness

An Arizona court must give a statute a constitutional construction, if possible. To do this, it can read related statutes in connection with the vague law. In short, a vague statute’s terms can be “beefed up” by reading it in conjunction with other statutes.

Criminal Statute for Non-Payment of Child Support.

Criminal Statute for Non-Payment of Child Support.

The Court of Appeals reviewed other child support laws to determine what “reasonable support” means. It found that another statute on the same topic did supplement the criminal statute. The law requiring parents to provide all reasonable support for minor children defines “support”. It says that “support” means “the provision of maintenance or subsistence and includes medical coverage”.

If a court reads this statute with the felony statute, it provides requisite details about what support is reasonable. That would clarify the level of support at issue in the criminal statute. Reasonable support, then, would mean sufficient support to maintain a child at a subsistence level plus medical care. Interpreted this way, the statute is not unconstitutionally vague.

The Court of Appeals adopted this as the meaning of the statute. The fact that the “definition of support” here states that it only applies to the one section. However, the Court read it as interpreting the felony statute anyway. The Court rejected a limited interpretation since the two laws are in the same chapter and serve similar goals. The legislature added the definition of support to the law well after it added the felony statute. The Court said this did not matter. Courts must harmonize laws even where the statutes are enacted at different times and do not refer to each other.

Disposition

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling. It interpreted the term “reasonable support” by reference to the definition in another section of the child support law. It remanded the case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.



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