Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, September 21, 2007

Fields: Knowledge of out of state residency of child is essential element

In U.S. v. Fields, No. 06-13784 (Sept. 21, 2007), the Court reversed the conviction of a defendant convicted of willfully failing to pay past due child support, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 228(a)(1).
The elements of the offense are (1) a willful failure to pay, (2) past due support, (3) to a child who resides in another state. The defendant claimed that since his ex-wife, without his knowledge, moved with their child out of Florida, he, a Florida resident, lacked the willful mens rea of the statute as to the out-of-state status of his child. The district court rejected this argument, finding that the out-of-state status of the child was a mere jurisdictional hook, as to which no mental state was required. Reversing, the Court pointed out that since child support obligations always arose out of state court judgments, the federal duty to pay child support, violation of which can give rise to federal criminal liability, can only arise when the child resides out of state. Federal criminal statutes generally require proof of the defendant’s knowledge of the facts that give rise to a violation of the law, and here one of the facts was the child’s out-of-state residence. The removal of the child by the mother out of state is what made the defendant’s failure to pay child support criminal under federal law, and this event was hidden from the father by the mother. Thus, there was no "willful" violation of the statute. The Court therefore reversed the conviction.