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.
Is Void for Vagueness Issue “Ripe” for Determination
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.
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.
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.