Monday, February 15, 2010

UM Law School Challenges Constitutionality of Felony Child Support Statute

The mighty UM Law School has its hands all over the recent constitutional challenge to the felony child support statute.  The case was originally charged by UM Law Alumni and Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox.  The appellant-defendant in the case is represented by the Michigan Innocence Project, run out of the UM Law School by Professor David Moran.

The case, People vs Likine, was the subject of a one-day jury trial in the Oakland County Circuit Court back in November 2008.  Years earlier, Selesa Likine was ordered to pay child support for her three minor children pursuant to her divorce proceedings; also in Oakland County.  The criminal case against Likine charged that she fell behind on the support payments from 2005 through 2008, creating arrears in the amount of nearly fifty thousand dollars.

Ms Likine attempted to assert the defense of an "inability to pay" the support ordered by the family court.  She claimed disability via the Social Security Administration stemming from her diagnosis of Schizoaffective Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder.  Likine also asserted that she was unemployed due to a lengthily hospitalization at the beginning of the charging period.  She further claimed that her support obligation was erroneously calculated by the family court, as it was based on a "phantom" imputed income of $5000 per month; a wage she claims she never earned in her entire life.

The felony child support statute is one of strict liability.  The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in a 2004 published case (People v Adams) that a defendant cannot assert a defense at trial of his or her, "inability to pay" the court-ordered child support.

Accordingly, in the Likine case, the Attorney General requested trial judge John McDonald to preclude Likine from introducing any of the above facts regarding her disability and resulting lack of income from jury consideration.  The AG's motion was granted based on the Court of Appeals' Adams ruling.

Just prior to the beginning of her criminal trial, Likine's attorney moved for reconsideration of Judge McDonald's evidentiary ruling; this time arguing that precluding her from presenting evidence of her "ability to pay" and of her employment history, violated Likine's constitutional Due Process rights under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The motion was again denied.

Not surprisingly, Likine was convicted by the jury of failing to pay court-ordered child support and sentenced to one-year probation.  When the jury was deliberating her case, however, they sent out a note to Judge McDonald asking for information about Ms Likine's employment history.  Due to his earlier rulings in the case, Judge McDonald refused to answer the jury's query.

Following her jury trial, Likine secured appellate representation from UM's Professor Moran, who filed a motion for new trial; this time asserting that Likine's conviction violated the Michigan Constitution.  McDonald, stating that he sometimes disagreed with the Court of Appeals' Adams decision, nevertheless denied the motion.

In her appeal currently pending before the Michigan Court of Appeals, Likine relies on a Michigan Supreme  Court decision from 1889 which held that statutes cannot criminalize conduct which, through no fault of the defendant, is impossible to avoid.  Professor Moran asserts that such a criminal law lacks the requisite, "voluntary actus reus" (bad act).

Along the same lines, Professor Moran raises a claim of violation of federal Due Process under the U.S. Constitution.  In this fashion, Likine argues on appeal that the Court of Appeals' Adams decision wrongly eliminates the actus reus requirement of the felony child support statute, rendering it unconstitutional on its face.

In response, the Attorney General asserts that Adams remains controlling in felony child support convictions. The AG's argument is that the Michigan Constitution is not offended when a "prior judicial determination" establishes a payment obligation for which it is a crime to ignore.  Since Likine's support obligation was established by the family court, she was afforded Due Process.

In a somewhat surprising move given the high-powered counsel on both sides, the Court of Appeals has submitted the case to a 3-judge panel for decision without the benefit of oral argument.  The order to dispose of the case solely on the briefs was issued last week, despite both sides filing timely briefs which requested oral argument.

The losing side on this one will probably try to take the issue before the Michigan Supreme Court.

Update:  The Court of Appeals "changed its mind" and, on its own motion, granted the parties a very brief oral argument on March 4, 2010; ten minutes for each side.

The Court of Appeals issued it's unpublished per curiam opinion affirming Defendant's conviction on grounds her constitutional right to Due Process was not violated.  The Court held that, because she availed herself of numerous hearings in the family court, she was afforded Due Process.

When I discovered this opinion had been issued, I contacted Professor Moran to get his take on the result.  He simply stated that he did not believe the panel fully understood the facts of Ms. Likine's case.  Also, Professor Moran said he was applying for certiorari to the Michigan Supreme Court and then, if necessary, on to SCOTUS.

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