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Criminal penalties may not be imposed on someone who has not been afforded the protections that the Constitution requires of such criminal proceedings, including the requirement that the offense be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
After Phillip Feiock stopped making $ 150 monthly child support payments to his ex-wife under a California state-court order, he was served with an order to show cause why he should not be held in contempt on nine counts of failure to make the payments. At the contempt hearing, his defense that he was financially unable to make payments was partially successful, but he was adjudged in contempt on five counts; was sentenced to a 5-day jail term on each count, to be served consecutively; and was placed on probation for three years upon suspension of the sentence. As conditions of his probation, he was ordered to resume the monthly payments and to begin repaying $ 50 per month on his accumulated arrearages. During the contempt hearing, the court rejected his contention that the application against him of Cal. Civ. Proc. Ann. § 1209.5 (West 1982), governing the prima facie showing of contempt of a court order to make child support payments, was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause because it shifts to the defendant the burden of proof as to ability to comply with the order, which is an element of the crime of contempt. The California Court of Appeal annulled the contempt order, ruling that § 1209.5 purports to impose "a mandatory presumption compelling a conclusion of guilt without independent proof of an ability to pay," and is therefore unconstitutional because "the mandatory nature of the presumption lessens the prosecution's burden of proof." The court went on to state that for future guidance, however, the statute should be construed as authorizing a permissive inference, not a mandatory presumption. The California Supreme Court denied review.
Did the state appellate court err when it sustained Feiock’s challenge to the statute under the Due Process Clause?
The Court held that it could not depart from the state appellate court's resolution of the state law issues. However, the state appellate court erred when it sustained Feiock’s challenge to the statute under the Due Process Clause simply because it concluded that the contempt proceeding was quasi-criminal as a matter of state law. The state appellate court should have determined whether the contempt judgment would have been purged by Feiock paying off his arrearage. If so, the proceeding was civil and the statute was constitutionally valid.