Tuesday, December 16, 2008

State v. Latall[1]

Opinion handed down December 16, 2008
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Missouri Supreme Court held: (1) the defendant met his burden of production by introducing evidence that he had good cause for not paying child support owed to his child’s mother; and (2) the State failed to present sufficient evidence to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant lacked good cause for his failure to pay, thus, overturning his conviction for criminal nonsupport.

I. Facts and Holding[1]

The State charged Robert Latall with violating Missouri’s criminal nonsupport statute, a class A misdemeanor. Latall worked as a manager for a sheet metal company in Cole County where he earned more than one hundred thousand dollars a year and had a 401(k) valued at $180,000. He left his job in Cole County to work for another sheet metal company based in Kansas City. Shortly after Latall began his employment in Kansas City, the company closed its business. Latall applied for employment with other sheet metal companies but was unable to find work in the sheet metal field. He eventually took a job as a carpenter for $10 per hour. Latall continued to make child support payments during this period of time.

In September 2004, Latall used money from his 401(k) to buy a bar outside of Kansas City. After Latall purchased the bar, he stopped making child support payments. The bar was unprofitable. He could not afford to hire employees and soon owed several thousand dollars in utility bills. The bank holding Latall’s home mortgage foreclosed and he moved into his bar.The State of Missouri charged Latall with criminal nonsupport due to his failure to make child support payments to his child’s mother. At the time of the trial, the bar remained unprofitable and his tangible personal property was valued at $3,000. The trial court found Latall guilty of criminal nonsupport and sentenced him to two years of unsupervised probation. In addition, the court required Latall to provide the court with job contracts for prospective employment and to make $800 monthly child support payments to his child’s mother. Latall failed to meet these requirements and the court sentenced him to two additional years of supervised probation and ordered him to make the $800 monthly payments. Latall appealed his conviction arguing that his financial inability to pay child support constituted good cause for his failure to pay.

II. Legal Background

A. Missouri’s Criminal Nonsupport Statute
Criminal nonsupport occurs when a parent “knowingly fails to provide, without good cause, adequate support which such parent is legally obligated to provide for his child . . . .”[2] The statute defines “good cause” as “any substantial reason why the defendant is unable to provide adequate support.”[3] “Good cause does not exist if the defendant purposely maintains his inability to support.”[4] The defendant has the burden of “injecting the issue” of good cause into the case.[5]

Mo. Rev. Stat. § 556.051 elucidates the phrase “the defendant shall have the burden of injecting the issue.” The phrase means “(1) The issue referred to is not submitted to the trier of fact unless supported by evidence; and (2) If the issue is submitted to the trier of fact any reasonable doubt on the issue requires a finding for the defendant on that issue.”[6]

The “supported by evidence” requirement in Mo. Rev. Stat. § 556.051(1) indicates that the defendant has the burden of production relating to good cause.[7] The burden of production simply denotes which party must introduce evidence to support an allegation, regardless of whether that party can ultimately prove the allegation.[8] Conversely, Mo. Rev. Stat. § 556.051(2) places the burden of persuasion to disprove good cause on the State. In other words, the State must convince the fact-finder to interpret the facts in a manner favorable to its viewpoint.[9] Here, the statute requires that the State prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not have good cause for his failure to make child support payments.[10]

In analyzing the case, the Missouri Supreme Court first looked at whether or not the defendant met his burden of production of injecting the issue of good cause into the case.[11] Evidence offered by Latall at trial demonstrated that he had little, if any income, no valuable assets, and was heavily indebted.[12] The Court held that Latall met the burden of production to inject the issue of good cause into the case.[13]

B. Sufficiency of the Evidence
After determining that Latall had injected the issue of good cause into the case, the Missouri Supreme Court examined whether the evidence was sufficient to warrant a finding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Latall could make the child support payments.[14] To do so, the Court must “accept as true all evidence tending to prove guilt together with all reasonable inferences that support the verdict, and ignore all contrary evidence and inferences.”[15] The evidence at Latall’s trial indicated that he had little, if any, income and no assets.[16] The only evidence the State offered to contradict this was that Latall’s bar had a well constructed website, indicating a prosperous business.[17] Accordingly, the Court held that the State had not presented sufficient evidence to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant had the ability to pay child support.[18]

C. Dissenting Opinions
Senior Judge Maloney[19] reasoned that the case contained sufficient evidence to support a holding that good cause did not exist because Latall purposely maintained his inability to provide adequate support.[20] He inferred this from the fact that Latall devoted all his time to a bar that never was profitable.[21] Since good cause does not exist if the defendant purposely maintains his inability to pay child support, Judge Maloney dissented from the majority opinion. Judge Breckenridge concurred in Maloney’s dissent. Judge Breckenridge argued that inferring that Latall was purposely maintaining an inability to pay was the conclusion one must reach when viewing the conviction in the light most favorable to upholding the conviction and, thus, should be accepted by the Court.[22]

III. Commentary

The Missouri Supreme Court in State v. Latall applies a straight forward interpretation of Missouri’s criminal nonsupport statute to determine whether Latall injected good cause into his case. As such, the court did not change or shift the law on this point. Further, even though the Court disagreed on whether the evidence was sufficient to support Latall’s conviction, both the majority and dissent agreed as to which standard of review to apply. As a result, Latall does not add to the body of law in this area either. The disagreement in Latall only indicates that judges draw different inferences based on the same evidence, not that the Missouri Supreme Court will interpret the standard of review for sufficiency of evidence differently in the future.

- Joseph E. Bredehoft
[1] No. SC89322 (Mo. Dec. 16, 2008) (en banc). The West reporter citation is State v. Latall, 271 S.W.3d 561 (Mo. 2008) (en banc).
[2] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 568.040.1 (2000).
[3] Id. at § 568.040.2(2).
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at § 568.040.3.
[6] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 556.051 (2000).
[7] See State v. Strubberg, 616 S.W.2d 809, 816 (Mo. 1981) (en banc).
[8] State v. Porras, 84 S.W.3d 153, 159 n.3 (Mo. App. 2002).
[9] State v. Ramires, 152 S.W.3d 385, 395 (Mo. App. 2004) (citing Black’s Law Dictionary 190 (7th ed. 1999)).
[10] See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 556.051.
[11] Latall, 2008 WL 5233284, at *4.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id. at *5.
[15] State v. Helmig, 924 S.W.2d 562, 565 (Mo. App. 1996) (citing State v. Sladek, 835 S.W.2d 308, 310 (Mo. 1992) (en banc).
[16] Latall, 2008 WL 5233284, at *5.
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Judge Maloney served as a special visiting judge on this case.
[20] Id. at *6 (Maloney, J., dissenting).
[21] Id.
[22] Id. at *7 (Breckenridge, J., dissenting). The majority inferred that Latall was working in good faith to make his bar profitable and was not purposely maintaining unemployment to avoid paying child support. Id. at *3 n.2.