A Rochester man who ignored years of demands to pay child support for his two kids can’t be criminally punished because there's no proof he didn't otherwise care for them, a Minnesota Supreme Court majority ruled Wednesday in a decision lamented by one justice as leaving the state as a lone outlier in its failure to hold deadbeat parents accountable.
Larry Nelson owed $83,470 for 11 years of back child support for his two children, now adults, when he was convicted of a felony three years ago under a state law that criminalizes knowing failure to “to provide care and support” to children or a spouse when ordered to do so under the law.
In a 4-3 split decision, the state’s high court reversed Nelson’s conviction, reasoning that “care” and “support” refer to different obligations. While it was clear Nelson failed to provide monetary “support,” he argued that prosecutors could not prove that he didn’t provide “care” for his children. The high court agreed, reasoning that the law is ambiguous.
“As the opinion states, there was absolutely no evidence that he wasn’t caring for his children,” said Asssitant State Public Defender Sharon Jacks, who argued the case on Nelson’s behalf. Her client, she added, is thrilled with the outcome.
Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem, whose office argued the case, conceded that although the statute is somewhat ambiguous, it could create serious difficulties for prosecutors who attempt to hold parents like Nelson accountable criminally, which he added is often a last-ditch effort after civil sanctions like garnishing wages.
“Even if you pick up your kid once from daycare in the course of a month, then you provided care. That really just doesn’t make sense,” Ostrem said.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice David Lillehaug suggested lawmakers must make efforts to redefine the law, which as interpreted by the majority, "handcuffs" prosecutors.
"It is possible that, as a result of the majority’s holding and in the absence of swift legislative correction, Minnesota could become the only state without viable criminal sanctions for failure to pay child support." he wrote.