Child support enforcement is akin to a criminal prosecution and must be handled with the utmost eye toward the due process rights of the accused. It is a well-settled and obvious rule that, in order to hold someone in jail on an enforcement case, such as for nonpayment of child support, both the contempt order and the commitment order must be in writing and signed by the judge immediately following the commitment. Failure to do both of these things renders the commitment void.
The Houston 1st District Court of Appeals decided a case illustrating this point recently. There, the mother sued the father for enforcement of child support and medical support payments he failed to make. The trial court found against father and held him in contempt with a sentence of 180 days confinement for each violation to run concurrently. The sentence was initially suspended pending compliance, but father failed to comply and revocation was heard. The court revoked the sentence orally and committed father to jail for 180 sentence. Four days later, the trial court entered its revocation and commitment order.
Father sought habeas corpus, which was granted. The court of appeals held that 4 days is too long between commitment and entry of the order according to due process. A person may not be imprisoned for contempt without a written order of commitment. An arrest for contempt without a written commitment order is an illegal restraint from which a prisoner is entitled to habeas relief. However, a trial court may cause a contemnor to be detained by the sheriff for a short and reasonable time while the judgment of contempt and order of commitment are prepared for the judge’s signature. Less than twenty-four hours to prepare a commitment order is a short and reasonable time. Two or three days between oral rendition of commitment and the signing of the written order of commitment, however, has been held to constitute an unduly delay that necessitates habeas relief. Because the trial court did not sign a written commitment order until four days after the oral rendition of commitment, Father’s due process rights were violated and that the commitment order is void.
In re Linan, ___ S.W.3d ___, 2013 WL 6504766 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2013, orig. proceeding) (12/12/13)