Lengthy Sentence for Criminal Contempt Challenged in Cleveland, Tennessee: Choate v. Choate

November 3, 2021 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother and Father, the parents of two children, divorced in 2015.

Two years later, their parenting plan was modified by agreement to provide equal time.

One year after that, Father petitioned to modify the parenting plan to reduce Mother’s parenting time and find her guilty of 592 counts of criminal contempt for a variety of violations of the court-ordered parenting plan.

In what the Court of Appeals describes as an “immensely detailed, 72-page order,” the trial court described the case as “the most disturbing case and the most severe alienation this Court has seen in 21 years.” These excerpts from the trial court’s finding give you a flavor:

The fact [is] Mother has very little to no insight on how her behavior is inappropriate, is not in the best interest of the child, and [is] a central problem in this case.

*     *     *     *     *

This Court cannot condone Mother’s behavior. She has willfully and defiantly violated this Court’s orders.

*     *     *     *     *

[I]t is in the best interest of the children for Father to become the primary residential parent of both children…. Mother will have them every other weekend … only after she successfully completes [an intensive counseling program].

*     *     *     *     *

[W]hen a parent is supporting alienation, it effectively supports the child in cruel, un-empathic behavior towards another human being. The court finds Mother is supporting the child in attitudes and behaviors towards interpersonal conflict that emphasize rejection, separation, and polarization rather than resolution.

Mother was found in criminal contempt on 573 counts of not following the court-ordered parenting plan. She was fined $50 on each count for a total of $28,650.

Mother was sentenced to serve 200 days in jail—10 days for the first 20 counts of contempt to run consecutively, with the remaining 553 counts to run concurrently.

Mother was ordered to pay Father’s attorney’s fees totaling $89,974.26.

Mother appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Mother argued her sentence of 200 days in jail and a fine of over $28,000 was “excessive and shocks the conscience.”

Tennessee law provides that criminal contempt should be imposed when necessary to prevent actual, direct obstruction of, or interference with, the administration of justice. Sanctions imposed for criminal contempt are both punitive and unconditional.

The overall length of the sentence must be justly deserved in relation to the seriousness of the offenses, and no greater than that deserved under the circumstances.

Not every contemptuous act, or combination of contemptuous acts, justifies the imposition of a maximum sentence, particularly when consecutive sentencing is ordered. If a sentence for contempt is thought excessive, the appellate court must reduce or modify it.

The Court shared the trial court’s opinion of Mother’s misbehavior and the punishment it calls for:

We note Mother’s testimony that, to her, a parenting plan is a mere “piece of paper.” While the parenting plan was simply a piece of paper in the most reductive, physical sense, it also represented the trial court’s lawful authority that Mother was bound to obey. Instead, Mother repeatedly flouted and defied the trial court. She cut Father off from exercising his parenting time with [the oldest child]; failed to communicate with Father as required; withheld information from Father; failed to consult Father; failed to give Father [the oldest child’s] telephone number when she got a new phone; and made derogatory remarks about Father in front of the children, all in violation of the parenting plan. There was no ambiguity regarding Mother’s duties under the parenting plan, which was a lawful order of the trial court.

Mother has shown no respect for the rule of law in this case. Mother’s behavior was egregious, and her punishment is justly deserved. We find that Mother’s 200-day sentence is not excessive. We further find no abuse of discretion by the trial court in its disposition of Mother’s criminal contempt proceedings. The trial court’s use of its contempt power was neither illogical nor unreasonable; had a sufficient evidentiary basis; comported with the applicable law; and was one of multiple acceptable alternatives.

The trial court’s judgment was affirmed, and Father was awarded his attorney’s fees on appeal.

K.O.’s Comment: Compare this case with Worley v. Whitaker. In Worley, the father engaged in a violent campaign over several months that included repeated threats to the mother, stalking, multiple acts of violence, and multiple acts of destruction of property, all in violation of an order of protection. The trial court found the father in contempt on 183 counts and ordered him to serve 1830 days in jail. That’s five years! The Court of Appeals found that excessive and reduced it to 730 days, a little over two years in jail. Notably, the Court said a criminal contempt sentence must be the “least severe measure necessary to achieve the purpose for which the sentence is imposed.”

Choate v. Choate (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, October 25, 2021).

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Lengthy Sentence for Criminal Contempt Challenged in Cleveland, Tennessee: Choate v. Choate was last modified: November 1st, 2021 by K.O. Herston

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