Tuesday, March 15, 2016

State v. Meacham

Opinion handed down October 13, 2015
        Dennis Meacham was charged with criminal nonsupport under Missouri Revised Statutes Section 568.040 for failing to make child support payments.[1]  He filed a motion to dismiss the information and sought a declaration that Section 568.040 was unconstitutional as violative of due process.[2]  Specifically, Meacham argued that the 2011 amendment to the statute, which expressed “without good cause” as an affirmative defense rather than an element of the offense, impermissibly shifted the burden of proof as to an element of the crime onto the defendant.[3]  The trial court agreed, dismissed the information, and held that portions of Section 568.040 were unconstitutional.[4]  Subsequently, the state appealed.[5]  In the instant case, the Supreme Court of Missouri reversed, holding that Section 568.040 was fully compliant with due process under the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions.[6] 

I.  Facts and Holding
Meacham was charged with criminal nonsupport in violation of Section 568.040.[7]  The information stated that Meacham knowingly failed to make twelve months’ worth of child support payments to provide for his three children, which he was obligated to do pursuant to an order of support issued by the Family Support Division.[8]
Meacham moved to dismiss the information and to declare Section 568.040 unconstitutional.[9]  He alleged that the statute violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 10 of the Missouri Constitution.[10]  Specifically, Meacham pointed to the 2011 amendment to the statute, which removed the phrase “without good cause” as an element of the offense and expressed it as an affirmative defense.[11]  He argued that the statute, as amended, improperly shifted the burden of proof to the defendant on an element of the crime.[12] 
The trial court granted the motion; it dismissed the information and held that paragraphs 1, 3, and 4 of Section 568.040 were unconstitutional.[13]  The State appealed.[14]  In the instant case, the State argued that the concept of good cause under the 2011 amendment was expressed as an affirmative defense, and placing the burden on a defendant to prove an affirmative defense comported with due process.[15]  Further, the State argued that the removal of “without good cause” did not create a mandatory presumption of an ability to pay, nor did it create any criminal intent apart from “knowingly.”[16]  Meacham disagreed, arguing that the legislature intended to punish only recalcitrant parents, such that the ability to provide support must be an implied element of the offense.[17]  He contended that it was not the knowing failure to support that created liability; rather, it was the knowing failure coupled with the ability to support.[18]
  1.  II.  Legal Background
The current version of Section 568.040 provides, in relevant part:
1. [A] parent commits the offense of nonsupport if such parent knowingly fails to provide adequate support which such parent is legally obligated to provide for his or her child or stepchild . . .
3. Inability to provide support for good cause shall be an affirmative defense under this section.  A defendant who raises such affirmative defense has the burden of proving the defense by a preponderance of the evidence.[19]
“Good cause” is defined by the statute as “any substantial reason why the defendant is unable to provide adequate support.  Good cause does not exist if the defendant purposely maintains his inability to support.”[20]
        Prior to 2009, paragraph 1 of Section 568.040 defined criminal nonsupport as “knowingly failing to provide, without good cause, adequate support which such parent is legally obligated to provide  . . . .”[21] 
In 2009, the legislature amended paragraph 3 to provide that “inability to provide support for good cause” was an affirmative defense that the defendant must raise and prove.[22]  The legislature did not change the definitional elements of nonsupport in paragraph 1 at that time.[23]
The 2009 amendment was challenged in State v. Holmes.[24]  There, the defendant argued that the statute unconstitutionally required a defendant to disprove an element of the offense in violation of his due process rights.[25]  The defendant based this argument on the language of the statute, noting that “failure to provide, without good cause, adequate support” was an element of nonsupport in paragraph 1, yet “inability to pay for good cause” was an affirmative defense in paragraph 3.[26]  The Supreme Court of Missouri disagreed with defendant and upheld the statute, stating:
Rather than interpret this duplication to make lack of good cause an element and then nonsensically impose the burden of disproving it on the defendant while characterizing it as a defense rather than an element, the most logical interpretation in the circumstances is to interpret it as requiring the State to prove lack of good cause while at the same time permitting the defendant to offer additional proof that he had good cause.[27]
The court speculated that it might have been the case that “good cause” was intended to be an affirmative defense rather than an element of the offense.[28]  The court noted, in dicta, that this objective could have been accomplished had the phrase “without good cause” been removed from paragraph 1 at the same time it was added to paragraph 3.[29]
        Subsequently, a 2011 amendment did just that – it removed “without good cause” from the elements in paragraph 1 but kept “inability to provide support for good cause” as an affirmative defense in paragraph 3.[30]  This version of Section 568.040 was the version in effect when Meacham was charged in 2014, such that the constitutional validity of this amendment was the issue before the court in the instant case.[31]
  1. III.  Instant Decision
The court applied a de novo standard of review in evaluating the constitutional challenge to Section 568.040 and ultimately held that the statute “is fully compliant with constitutional standards of due process.”[32] 
The court rejected Meacham’s argument that liability required the culpable mental state of “knowingly” and the ability to pay.[33]  The court explained:
Father may well believe that it is bad policy to allow the knowing failure to provide support alone to be sufficient for criminal liability because the purpose of Section 568.040 is to punish only recalcitrant parents.[34]  Yet it is precisely the purpose that is addressed by the legislature’s choice to provide the financially unable parent with an affirmative defense of good cause.[35]
The court agreed with the State that “without good cause” is not an implied element of Section 568.040; accordingly, the court found that the burden of proof was not shifted to Meacham on any element of the offense.[36]
        To conclude its evaluation, the court addressed the issue of whether it is permissible for the legislature to place the burden of proof on a defendant as to the affirmative defense of inability to provide support for good cause.[37]  The court quickly decided this issue, stating, “[t]he answer clearly is yes.”[38]
        Because the burden of proof had not been shifted to Meacham on any element of the offense, and because the burden of proving an affirmative defense can constitutionally be placed on Meacham, the court reversed the trial court’s decision and upheld Section 568.040 as constitutional.[39]
IV.  Comment
The Supreme Court of Missouri properly addressed the issue before it in this case.  First, Section 568.040 provides for a requisite intent of “knowingly.”  The Court avoided muddling this by refusing to infer a requirement of something beyond that, for example an ability to pay.  Second, the court properly addressed Meacham’s argument that the purpose of the statute was to punish recalcitrant parents in recognizing and noting that this was addressed by the affirmative defense.  Lastly, the burden of proof properly rests on a defendant for affirmative defenses.  The court did a good job of keeping its analysis and explanation of this short and simple, as this concept is consistent with Missouri law and clear from its history.
  • Lynsey Russell

[1] State v. Meacham, 470 S.W.3d 744, 745 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id. at 747.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 568.040(1), (3) (Cum. Supp. 2013).
[20] Id.
[21] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 568.040(1) (2000) (emphasis added).
[22] Id. at § 568.040(3).
[23] Id.
[24] 399 S.W.3d 809 (Mo. 2013) (en banc).
[25] Id. at 810.
[26] Id.
[27] Id. at 814.
[28] Id. at 813.
[29] Id.
[30] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 568.040(3) (Cum. Supp. 2013).
[31] State v. Meacham, 470 S.W.3d 744, 746-47 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[32] Id. at 748.
[33] Id. at 747.
[34] Id.
[35] Id.
[36] Id.
[37] Id.
[38] Id. at 747-48.
[39] Id.