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Arrest thrown out in child support case

Failure to pay child support can have very serious legal consequences in Florida including arrest. However, a Florida appeals court clarified the of judicial officials in family law cases by ruling that hearing officers cannot order the arrest of parents who are delinquent in support payments.

The arrest was ordered by a hearing officer in the Fourth Circuit which has jurisdiction over Duval, Clay and Nassau counties. The Circuit has 15,000 pending family law cases and only seven judges. It accordingly relies on hearing officers to draft a report and recommendation for the judge.

In this case, a 30-year-old man owed almost $11,000 in support but could not afford to make payments because of difficulties with getting employment despite his good-faith efforts. The hearing officer prepared a report recommending his arrest for 60 days unless the parent could pay $500.00. However, a judge did not approve the recommendation and authorize the arrest, as required. The hearing officer nonetheless ordered his arrest for contempt of court despite his lawyer's objections.

The First Circuit overruled the arrest. It found that the arrest was inappropriate because circuit judges possess the sole power to rule that people are in contempt of court. A Fourth Circuit Judge said that there was a breakdown in the judicial system which was being corrected. This judge believed that parents would find the money to get out of jail when a hearing officer ordered an arrest for delinquent payments in the past.

A family law attorney in this jurisdiction claimed that hearing officers arrested four of his clients despite his objections. He said that 75 percent of his clients were arrested by hearing officers, without a judge's approval, before they sought his representation. Before new courthouses were constructed, it was easier to make arrests because hearings took place at the jail. In 2014, the media reported on another case where a parent was wrongly arrested by a hearing officer. The judge later approved the order only after the person was released from prison.

This case illustrates that parents should obtain legal representation to help assure that their rights are protected in child support and custody matters. Parents who are owed child support should have access to legal remedies to seek delinquent payments. Parents who owe support are also entitled to legal process.

Source: The Florida Times Union, "Court says hearing officer was wrong to order arrest in child-support case," By Andrew Pantazi, May 30, 2017

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