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House of Representatives
Session of 2019 - 2020 Regular Session


Posted: January 25, 2019 01:42 PM
From: Representative Dan Moul
To: All House members
Subject: Indirect Criminal Contempt- prior HB139
I sponsored this legislation at the suggestion of a family court judge. It amends the Domestic Relations Code in order to authorize family court judges to hold individuals in indirect criminal contempt for willfully failing to pay a support order.

This legislation is needed because uncollected child support totaled $1.4 billion, as of federal fiscal year 2007. This $1.4 billion is a cumulative figure, representing the amount of child support remaining uncollected since 1975. In my home county of Adams alone, uncollected child support exceeds $1.5 million. This $1.5 million goes along with over 190 bench warrants issued for non-payment of support.

Currently, the Domestic Relations Code only contains a provision regarding civil contempt. Under recent decisions handed down by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the cases of Godfrey v. Godfrey and Hyle v. Hyle, family court judges are no longer able to use the power of civil contempt to require that defendants look for work, hold down a job, or turn over a tax refund in order to pay child support. The Superior Court has held that, under the statutory provision related to civil contempt, the court can only impose a condition for willfully failing to pay child support when the defendant has the ability to comply with the condition at the present moment. Under the Superior Court’s reasoning, looking for work, holding a job, or turning over a tax refund which is due shortly are all future events. Hence, judges can no longer impose these conditions under the civil contempt statute.

It is up to the General Assembly to enact a statute to restore the court’s ability to deal with those who willfully fail to support their children. Legislation granting the power of the court to hold a defendant in indirect criminal contempt will empower judges to find creative and meaningful ways to compel those willfully neglecting their children to pay support- - as courts were able to do before the Superior Court’s rulings in Godfrey and Hyle. These orders included ordering the defendant to search for employment, to hold a job, to turn over a tax refund or to spend the weekend in jail.

This legislation is modeled after the indirect criminal contempt provision in the Protection From Abuse Act. The penalties for willfully failing to feed and clothe children mirror those for the statute allowing a court to hold a person in civil contempt for willful noncompliance. However, the bill will allow the court to order “other relief.” Hence, a court will be able to order a defendant to search for employment, to hold a job, to turn over a tax refund, to pay an amount of money by a certain date or to spend a weekend in jail.

I believe we must amend the Domestic Relations Code to reverse the Superior Court’s decisions in Godfrey and Hyle, thereby restoring the power of family court judges. Although the Supreme Court has recently promulgated a court rule regarding indirect criminal contempt, the rule contains many flaws. For example, the court rule does not contain a limit on the amount of time a defendant can spend in jail, does not allow the court to order the defendant to pay a certain amount of money by a certain date, and does not permit the court to develop creative solutions like requiring a defendant to spend the weekend in jail. In addition, the rule requires the defendant to have “all the procedural safeguards available to criminal defendants,” which arguably includes a jury trial. Traditionally, under the law, defendants in contempt proceedings do not have a right to a jury trial.

Introduced as HB653