From the Dept. of Well, Isn’t This What You Wanted?

A couple of weeks ago, a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina pulled over a car for having a broken tail light.

The police car’s on-board camera shows the officer go to the driver’s window and retrieve the driver’s license.  While the officer is running the license and tags, the driver panics, gets out, and runs.  Chase ensues, followed by scuffle.  Driver then hoofs it again and the police officer squeezes off eight rounds at an unarmed fleeing man.  At least one round strikes the driver’s heart and he falls dead.

Why did the driver run in the first place?  We can guess at why he might have run the second, fatal time.  He’d just had a physical altercation with a police officer.  But why the first time?  The car wasn’t stolen.  He wasn’t driving without a valid license.  He wasn’t wanted for any sort of drug- or violence-related crime.  He was a gainfully employed father of four.  Why did he run?  Obviously we can’t ask him now.

What we do know is that there were outstanding warrants for his arrest.  For unpaid child support.

I have not seen the victim’s court files, of course, and so I cannot tell you whether he had been held in civil contempt of court for failure to pay, or in criminal contempt, or both.  I don’t practice domestic law in any event, and so I have no way of telling what sort of experience he had awaiting him if he had been successfully nabbed instead of shot down like an animal.

Cue the squawks about “debtor’s prison.”

By this is meant the imprisonment of people for failure to pay money.  Of course there’s a verbal sleight-of-hand going on when you hear the left-extremists use the expression.  Genuine debtors’ prisons were prisons where you were locked up for failure to pay your lawful debts . . . to private creditors.  With one exception, on which more later, what are now being referred to as “debtors’ prisons” by the left-extremists at shops like the Puffington Host are the mechanisms for the incarceration of people who have not paid the government money.  Usually — with that one exception — what we’re talking about are criminal fines, fees, and costs, the responsibility for which is imposed as a matter of law in connection with conviction of a criminal offense or a plea arrangement in which the inducement is avoiding either a conviction on one’s record or incarceration for a conviction.  In other words, these are not people who have to go borrow some money from a title-pawn outfit to pay for the week’s groceries, discover they can’t pay, and end up in jail on a revolving basis.  These are people who have been charged with a crime and, in order to avoid the risk of even longer incarceration they agree to some sort of arrangement, maybe but not necessarily involving a guilty plea, but nearly always involving some kind of probation, for a period of time.  And they promise to pay court costs, any criminal fines, as well as the fees and expenses of the probation process (not infrequently contracted to private service providers).

Let’s leave apart the question whether the state should be contracting any portion of what is, after all, inherently a function of sovereignty — the imposition of criminal penalties.  Let’s ignore for the sake of argument whether the crimes with which these people are charged even ought to be crimes in the first place.  In point of fact until the relevant statutes are repealed they are crimes, lawfully proscribed behavior as determined by elected representatives of the people.  The people caught in the toils of the system are in fact people whose behavior has been sufficiently objectionable as to come into contact with the criminal justice system.  [Aside:  We are also ignoring for the sake of argument the phenomenon of grotesque over-charging, so tellingly portrayed in Instapundit’s own “Ham Sandwich Nation,” a practice that reliably produces guilty or similar pleas by people who in fact may well be not guilty of the crime to which they plea — or even any crime at all — but who dare not risk the decade or more in hard time if they go to trial on all the litany of offenses they’ve been charged with.]

I will admit that it is perfectly within reason to debate the idea of whether how we finance our criminal justice system is a good idea or a bad idea.  Reasonable people can in good faith disagree on whether this fines-costs-fees hamster wheel that in practice seems to feed on itself, as criminal defendants/convicts can’t pay the freight, thereby getting re-arrested, with more costs, more fines, more fees, and so forth, is a net benefit to society or not.  I will also join ranks with those who execrate places like Ferguson, Missouri, where they in exactly so many words decided to use their municipal criminal court to pay for their city, instead of taxes.

But what about that exception?

Well, yes.  That exception is unpaid child support.  The reason why the victim in South Carolina had warrants for his arrest.  Those debts are in fact owed to a private party — usually the mother.  Of course, if the mother is receiving government benefits, then federal law requires the state to seek to recover those benefits from all persons who are liable for the support of the child for whom the benefits are being paid.  As a taxpayer I don’t have any problem with this at all.  Why should some useless slug force me to pay for his baby-momma while he hangs around on the street corner drinking out of a paper bag or shooting dice in a government-provided apartment’s kitchen?

Does Gentle Reader remember one of the most popular hand-writing causes of the 1980s and 1990s — the Deadbeat Dad?  Almost weekly if not more often we got to hear horror stories about women struggling to raise children whom the fathers simply refused to support.  The fathers just walked out and point-blank refused to chip in anything, whether or not they had the ability to pay.  And the courts were letting them deadbeat dads get away it!!  I can no longer recall anywhere near the sheer number of articles in the newspaper, in news magazines, on the television which I saw on how awful it was that The Law Wasn’t Making These Fathers Pay.

And you know what?  There was a tremendous amount of truth in those stories and the conclusions we were asked to draw about the system.  The court system was egregiously lax in forcing parents of otherwise indigent children to pay up, and most of those delinquent parents were fathers.  I could spit-ball any number of theories as to why that might have been so, but for whatever reason the System was doing it, the reality was that if you were a mother of a child to whose father you were not married, you had precious few effective remedies if that father told you to go pound sand, he wasn’t paying.

And you know what else?  The legislatures and the bench listened.  Special agencies were set up, or special task forces within existing agencies were set up, the sole mission of which was to pursue deadbeat dads — and all at taxpayer expense, not at the expense of the single mother, by the way — to go after the deadbeats.  Judges got measurably less forgiving.  I still recall one day sitting in court, waiting for my client’s case to be called.  Ahead of us on the docket was a child support matter.  The father was attempting to convince the judge that your honor I Just Can’t Pay This.  The judge looked at him and said, “You don’t have to work but a half a day, and I don’t care whether it’s the first twelve hours or the second twelve hours, but you’re going to support your child.  Do you understand me?”  Another judge around here was widely known at contempt hearings for adjourning a 9:00 a.m. hearing to the 1:00 p.m. docket, and telling the respondent parent, “We’re going to adjourn this hearing until one o’clock.  At one o’clock I want you back in front of me with one of two things:  A check for <however many dollars> or your toothbrush.  Do you understand me?”  And as that same judge was wont to observe, it’s amazing how many people managed to find a money stump between 10:15 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.

So it was the South Carolina legislature’s and bench’s response to what was a very real problem that provided the background for what happened in North Charleston the other day.  Without the aggressive enforcement of child support orders, that shooting victim would not have had arrest warrants outstanding, would likely not have fled from the police or got in a fight with the officer, and would be alive and well today.  On the other hand, he can be viewed as a regrettable casualty, collateral damage, so to speak, in a battle that is much larger than he is.  It is not unreasonable or heartless or cruel to suggest that the damage avoided by that same aggressive enforcement mechanism — the systematic economic neglect and abandonment of children — is of sufficient social importance that, while we must regret this man’s death, and while we must punish vigorously the officer who gunned down an unarmed fleeing man, we still must not allow the tragedy of his death to cloud our judgment of why he needed to have those arrest warrants out.

It is simply an unfortunate truth that most of us are no better than we need to be.  Without the knowledge that non-payment equals jail time, there are just too many fathers out there who will refuse to pitch in to house, clothe, and feed their own children.  If that fear of jail time expresses itself in some non-compliant fathers not in a willingness to pay but rather in decisions to engage in demonstrably foolish behavior, like running from a cop, getting into a fist fight with him, then running again, I humbly suggest that is a price that we as a society should be willing to pay.

[Update 10:35 a.m., 21 Apr 15]:  The New York Times weighs in with an article on the dynamics of effective enforcement of child support orders.  Perhaps unusually for the NYT, the headline actually captures the essence of the process:  “Skip Child Support.  Go to Jail.  Lose Job.  Repeat.”  That about says it.

The article gives some sense of the treadmill aspect of it.  Get behind on your support payments.  Get hauled into court.  If the court determines you have the ability to pay and didn’t, then you go to jail for some period of time.  While you are inside, your employer fires you, so that when you come out you have no income to catch back up on the support obligation, which continued to accrue while you were inside.  And so forth.

I’d like to press, however, on a couple of points brought out in the article.

The initial one is that the North Charleston shooting victim, Walter Scott, lost “the best job [he] ever had” over a failure to pay support, by getting locked up for failure to pay.  That “best job” was paying him $35,000 a year in Charleston, South Carolina in around 2001-02 (to judge by the time line stated in the article).  Listen up, chief:  I was living in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1991, making right around that same $35,000, and you could more than just get by on that income.  I strongly question whether that situation would have changed by 2002.  For that matter, $35,000 is to this day right around the national median household (not per capita) income for a family of four.  So what precisely was Walter Scott doing with his $35,000 per year other than supporting his four children?  I’m going to need some convincing that his stepping onto that treadmill was someone’s fault other than his own.

The second is a bit harsher on Comrade Scott.  Apparently the mother of his first two children (born out of wedlock; the latter pair were born to his wife, from whom he later separated) was on the public tit, and Scott resented it.  Well yes, I perfectly understand that.  But this isn’t a playground argument over who has got more time on the teeter-totter.  This is about an obligation — to support your children to the best of your ability — that exists independently of anyone else’s efforts.  Just like to point that out.

The final point in the article I’d like to weigh in on is this statement:  “But experts said problems could arise when such tactics were used against people who had little money, and the vast majority of unpaid child support is owed by the very poor.  A 2007 Urban Institute study child support debt in nine large states found that 70 percent of the arrears were owed by people who reported less than $10,000 a year in income.”  Here’s a link to the study; the relevant chart is on page 22.  People who “reported”; get it?  Make that “self-reported” and you get closer to the truth of the matter.  That study draws its data from child support numbers matched to national quarterly wage and unemployment insurance data.  As the study itself honestly points out:  “Although obligors may not have reported quarterly wages or unemployment insurance, it does not mean they do not have the ability to pay any child support. Some of these obligors may be employed in areas that are not covered by quarterly wage data, such as those who are self-employed or independent contractors. Others may be working in covered industries, but they are working under the table to avoid paying taxes or child support. Still others may be engaged in illegal activities.”  Working under the table precisely to avoid paying taxes and child support?  Gee whiz, Sherlock, what was your first clue?

I once saw pointed out, many years ago and in a different context, the basic fact that you simply cannot rely on reported income figures to obtain a meaningful picture of any aspect of life in modern America.  Among the more pernicious effects of byzantine tax and employment regulations is a black-market economy that is truly staggering in its scope.  No; if you want to find out how much Group X is making, you have to measure their spending, not their reported income.  Someone who regularly spends $3,000 a month and reports income of $400 a week is lying.  Thus the Urban Institute’s (and the NYT‘s) picture of the child support system unfairly standing on the neck of the down-trodden, locking up men who truly, genuinely cannot pay to support their children, needs to be taken with several heaping tablespoons of salt.

Every lawyer out there who has practiced domestic law for so much as three weeks is familiar with the deadbeat parent who shows up in a recently-purchased, very nicely appointed vehicle, whose iPhone 6 is clipped to his belt, whose Facebook page shows him off doing his hobby (fishing on his bass boat, golfing, at the beach with New Girlfriend, or otherwise doing things that undeniably cost money), whom you’ll see cutting his yard on his zero-turn mower (check out what even a used one of those costs), and so forth.  He’s working for cash, frequently in construction, landscaping, or some other hard-to-pin-down trade.  Oh! but he’s “disabled,” walking into court on a cane . . . right before he goes out to tune up his tree stand for deer season.  Cry me a river.

I suppose it’s easy to tell where I shake out on the sympathy spectrum in respect of Walter Scott and his peers.  He sure as hell didn’t deserve to get killed, and certainly not like he was killed, but he gets very, very points from me about the arrest warrants that appear to have triggered his flight from that police officer.  And by the way, if he exhibited as poor decision-making skills in respect of his child support obligations as he did in running from, fighting with, and then again running from a police officer, just how much of a surprise can it be that he got and remained side-ways with the system?

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