Ohio Supreme Court Holds that a Person is not subject to Criminal Prosecution in a Child Support Arrearage-Only Case

On December 23, 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court issued an important decision in the case of State v. Pittman, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-8314 involving the non-payment of a child support arrearage, thereby settling a dispute among various appellate courts.

In that case, Pittman was ordered to pay child support for his two children in 1988.  In 2006, the Family Court issued a judgment finding the children to be emancipated, as they had turned 18 years old and were no longer in high school.  As a result, the order of current child support terminated.  However, over the period between 1988 and 2006, Pittman fell behind in his child support obligation by approximately $34,000.  This $34,000 arrearage was addressed by ordering Pittman to pay approximately $237 per month until the arrearage was satisfied.  Pittman failed to make the $237 monthly arrearage payment as ordered. 

The State first attempted to prosecute Pittman in Family Court in 2007 in a civil contempt action for failing to pay the monthly arrearage amount as ordered.  Pittman was found in contempt and sentenced to 30 days in jail, with 25 days suspended.  Following that action, Pittman again failed to make the $237 monthly arrearage payment as ordered.

In 2009, the State decided to prosecute Pittman criminally for Non-Support of Dependents, pursuant to 2919.21, involving nine felony violations occurring during different periods of time.  Due to Speedy Trial violations, the trial court dismissed all counts of the Indictment with the exception of two counts occurring between 2007 and 2009.  Pittman filed a Motion to Dismiss those remaining counts due to the fact that his current child support obligation terminated in 2006 and that he did not have a legal duty to support the children between 2007 and 2009, as it was an arrearage-only case at that point.

In State v. Pittman, the Ohio Supreme Court addressed the issue as to whether the State may prosecute a person who failed to make the payments set forth in an arrearage-only order issued after the date of his children’s emancipation.  The relevant language of the Non-Support of Dependents criminal statute, RC 2919.21(B), states, “No person shall abandon, or fail to provide support as established by a court order to, another person whom, by court order or decree, the person is legally obligated to support.”     In determining the intent behind the statute, the focused on the word “is” to show the meaning, stating

“RC 2919.21(B) is unambiguous.  It criminalizes a person’s failure to support – in the manner established by a court order – another person whom he is legally obligated to support.  Because the statute uses the present tense in the phrase ‘is legally obligated to support,’ a person charged with a violation must be under a current obligation to provide support.”

Therefore, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that Pittman was not subject to prosecution under RC 2919.21(B) for his failure to make payments on the child-support arrearage established in the 2006 order when he had no current legal obligation to support his emancipated children.

Child support criminal prosecutions, as well as civil contempt actions, are serious matters that should be handled by experienced criminal law attorneys.  If you or someone you know is being prosecuted for a child support-related matter, contact Criminal Defense Attorney Jonathan Horwitz at Horwitz & Horwitz, LLC, located in Centerville, Ohio.