Local Woman Wins Appeal; Suspended Sentences for Civil Contempt Banned by Superior Court

HARRISBURG, Pa. (EYT) – A recent ruling by the Pennsylvania Superior Court on a case that started out in Clarion County has now made it illegal for judges to impose suspended sentences for civil contempt.

According to a published article in The Legal Intelligencer, on Tuesday, May 8, a unanimous published opinion was issued in the case of Thompson v. Thompson, a case that began in Clarion County.

A three-judge panel reversed a Clarion County trial judge’s order that Ashley Thompson serve six-months in jail if she fell behind on her monthly payments toward child support arrears.

John P. Troese of the Law Office of John P. Troese in Clarion, Thompson’s lawyer, stated that the use of this kind of agreement his client entered into – an agreement which imposed a suspended sentence for civil contempt – was “widespread” in Clarion County.

Troese compared the system to a “debtor’s prison” where people were incarcerated for their inability to pay arrears and had no real recourse to challenge those determinations.

Judge Jacqueline Shogan wrote, “The law is clear that an indefinitely suspended sentence is not a sentencing alternative and is illegal,” according to The Legal Intelligencer.

Shogan also cited the Superior Court’s 2004 ruling in Commonwealth v. Joseph, writing, “Although Joseph dealt with sentencing in a criminal matter, we conclude that its rationale is instructive in our review of a sentence imposed for civil contempt.”

President Judge Susan Peikes Gantman and John Musmanno joined Shogan in the decision.

The opinion notes that Thompson entered into an agreement with the Clarion County Domestic Relations Office to pay child support arrears in the amount of $138.00 per month. As part of the agreement, Thompson acknowledged she was in civil contempt for failing to comply with a previous court order to make payments, and she agreed to serve a suspended six-month sentence if she fell behind on the payments.

Shogan also noted that the trial court subsequently issued an order incorporating that agreement.

The court order was appealed – arguing that the order constituted a due process violation because it called for Thompson to be incarcerated without a hearing on her ability to pay and because it failed to provide a purge amount. It was also argued that suspended sentences are not one of the enumerated punishments for contempt for noncompliance with a support order.

Shogan said Thompson “is correct in her assertions that a suspended sentence is not one of the enumerated punishments, and that 23 Pa.C.S. Section 4345(b) requires a purge condition.”

“In addition to our conclusion that the indefinitely suspended sentence is illegal, we further find the Feb. 15, 2017 order incorporating the agreement provided no purge amount and contained no mechanism through which the trial court could consider appellant’s present ability to pay,” Shogan said.

“Thus, in addition to imposing an illegal sentence, the Feb. 15, 2017 order incorporating the agreement violated the appellant’s right to due process.”

Shogan continued, “The statute requires the trial court to determine if the alleged contemnor has the present ability to pay; it does not contemplate future ability to pay or provide for incarceration if there is an inability to pay in the future. In other words, the agreement removes from consideration a subsequent change in circumstances.”

The court reversed the February 15, 2017 order incorporating the agreement and imposing an indefinitely suspended sentence and vacated the orders denying Appellant in forma pauperis status.

*(Forma Pauperis: Latin: “in the form of a pauper.” A phrase that indicates the permission given by a court to an indigent to initiate a legal action without having to pay for court fees or costs due to his or her lack of financial resources. Source: West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2.)

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