New Jersey Court Vacates Criminal Conviction Based on a Civil Contempt Order

In New Jersey, a person can be held in contempt for failing to pay child support and may be assigned to work release to enforce compliance with the underlying support order. A person assigned to work release for failing to pay child support, who fails to return to the work-release program, cannot be charged with a crime, however, as discussed in a recent case in which the defendant appealed his conviction for escape. If you are charged with a crime due to your failure to comply with a civil order, you should contact an experienced New Jersey criminal defense attorney to discuss whether you may be able to have the charges dismissed as improper.

Facts of the Case

It is reported that the defendant was confined to a work-release program in Bergen County Jail, due to his failure to pay child support. He failed to return to the jail by curfew on two occasions, and he was charged with the crime of escape. He pled guilty to the charges, after which he was sentenced. He subsequently filed a petition for post-conviction relief, arguing his trial counsel was ineffective because he failed to argue that the defendant could not be charged with escape for violating work release assigned due to a civil contempt order and that his sentence was illegal.

Allegedly, the trial judge denied the defendant’s petition without a hearing, noting that the defendant entered a knowing and voluntary plea and that the defendant’s failure to return to the jail met the elements for escape under the relevant statute. The defendant then appealed.

Grounds for Charges of Escape in New Jersey

The appellate court ultimately ruled that a person on work release for violating a civil order, such as an order to pay child support, cannot be charged with the crime of escape. Under New Jersey law, a person commits the offense of escape if he or she removes his or herself from an official detention or fails to return to an official detention center following authorized leave, without lawful permission to do so. An official detention includes an arrest, detention in a facility for people accused or convicted of crimes, and detention for any other purposes of law enforcement.

The appellate court noted that proceedings to enforce child support orders are civil proceedings that aim to coerce a defendant into compliance, and that incarceration or work release may only be ordered based upon a defendant’s refusal to comply with such an order. The court went on to state that there was no evidence that the legislature meant to allow a person assigned to work-release due to civil contempt to be charged with the crime of escape for violating the terms of the work-release. As such, the court vacated the defendant’s conviction.

Speak to a Diligent Criminal Defense Attorney

While a person may be sentenced to work release for failing to comply with a civil order, he or she cannot be charged with a crime for refusing to abide by the terms of a work-release program. If you are charged with escape for leaving work release, eluding, or with any other crime, the diligent New Jersey criminal defense attorneys of The Law Offices of Jonathan F. Marshall can identify any available defenses to your charges and help you seek a just outcome. You can contact us at 877-450-8301 or via our form online to schedule a conference.

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