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Friday, February 22, 2013

Ind. Decisions - Second opinion today from Supreme Court

In Sickels v. State, a 6-page, 5-0 opinion, Justice Rush writes:

In this case, the trial court determined that the custodial parent was the “victim” for purposes of criminal restitution for the noncustodial parent’s failure to support his dependent children. At the time the trial court ordered restitution, the children were adults and emancipated.

On direct appeal, the Court of Appeals, sua sponte, held that it was “erroneous” for the trial court to order the noncustodial parent to make restitution to the custodial parent. Specifically, the Court of Appeals held that the custodial parent was not a “victim” of the noncustodial parent’s crimes and that restitution was payable to only the children.

We hold that the trial court was well within its discretion to find that the custodial parent was the “victim.” * * *

Importantly, we do not hold that a custodial parent whose children are now emancipated is the only possible “victim” under these circumstances but that a custodial parent is entitled to a presumption that he or she has suffered an “injury, harm or loss” as a direct result of the noncustodial parent’s failure to pay child support. As a result, and barring an unusual circumstance, the custodial parent will be the recipient of criminal restitution for child-support arrearage in cases where the children have been emancipated. Furthermore, given the Court of Appeals’ broad language in its opinion, we must stress that this principle applies with even greater force when dependent children are involved—in those cases, criminal restitution for a support arrearage is payable only to the custodial parent.

Sound public policy and established legal precedent support these conclusions. Remitting restitution awards directly to a child could create concerns regarding the enforcement of orders. In the event the noncustodial parent does not follow the order, a dependent child would possibly be placed in the untenable position of having to figure out enforcement procedures or hiring a lawyer to do so. Furthermore, neither an emancipated nor a dependent child should be placed in an adversarial (and likely awkward) role against his or her noncustodial parent. Having the custodial parent as the “payee” in these instances eliminates these potential unnecessary hardships and recognizes that a custodial parent should be compensated for assuming the costs of supporting the children.

Conclusion. We summarily affirm the Court of Appeals on all issues but one: whether Kathy, as the custodial parent, was a “victim” of Sickels’ crimes and is thus entitled to the court-ordered restitution for child-support arrearage. We hold that the trial court was within its discretion to determine that restitution was payable to the custodial parent, despite the fact that the children were emancipated, and thus affirm the trial court on this issue. As consistent with the Court of Appeals opinion, the case is remanded to the trial court to clarify the amount of the restitution award and correct any court documents that refer to a civil judgment.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on February 22, 2013 12:05 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions