Tennessee child support case law summary from the Supreme Court of Tennessee.
Dorothy Jane AHERN (Pierotti) v. Robert Francis AHERN – Tennessee’s double jeapardy law and child support.
Dorothy Jane Ahern Pierotti, the Mother and Robert Francis Ahern, the Father were divorced on June 25, 1993. The divorce decree included a marital dissolution agreement (“MDA”) and child support to be paid to the Mother for the couple’s two children. The MDA also said that the Father must pay the majority (88.5%) of the health-related costs not covered by insurance, and a majority (88.5%) of the children’s school tuition.
In 1996, the Mother asked that the court to find the Father in contempt of court because he did not pay the full amount of child support. The Mother claimed that the Father had not paid all of his children’s school tuition, his son’s braces and some dental expenses not covered by insurance.
The trial court judge, who had approved the MDA, transferred the case to the Circuit court in Division 5. After hearing testimony from the Mother, the Circuit court judge decided the case should be heard in the original trial court and sent the case back to the trial court. The trial court found the Father guilty of criminal contempt for failure to pay child support and sentenced him to 180 days in prison. The Father appealed this ruling.
Civil and Criminal Contempt
The trial court ruled that the Father was guilty of criminal contempt because he had the ability to pay the child support and his decision not to pay it was willful and deliberate. The trial court sentenced him to 6 months in prison for failure to pay support. However, the law the trial court used for sentencing the Father limited the punishment to a fine of $50 and up to only ten days in court. Neither the Mother nor the court cited the provision in the law that allowed for up to six months in prison. Since the Father did not challenge the length of his sentence when he appealed, so the appellate court upheld the sentence.
Double Jeopardy in Tennessee Child Support Law
The Father appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee arguing that according to the rule prohibiting double jeopardy, his case could not be sent back from the Circuit court to the trial court and therefore his sentencing should be dismissed. The double jeopardy clause appears in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and prohibits a person from being tried twice for the same offense. Double jeopardy is applied in Tennessee through Article 1, § 10 of the Tennessee Constitution, which says that “no person shall, for the same offence, be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.”
The Supreme court agreed with the Father, citing Tennessee cases which ruled that once testimony begins in a trial, jeopardy begins. Since the Mother had already given testimony in the Division 5 court, the decision by the judge to return the case to the trial court meant the Father was being tried a second time for the same offense. The Supreme Court found that there was no opportunity for the Father to oppose the Circuit court judge’s decision to send the case back to the trial court, since she determined that it would be returned to the lower courts immediately. As a result, the Supreme court reversed the convictions for contempt and withdrew the Father’s sentencing. The case was sent back to the trial court for further proceedings that would fit with the Supreme court’s ruling. While the Father could not be punished for contempt, that is, for not paying the child support, he could still be required to pay what he owed.
15 S.W.3d 73 (Tenn. 2000).
See original opinion for exact language. Legal citations omitted.
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