ILNews

COA named as defendant in federal lawsuit

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a conviction for Class C felony nonsupport of a dependant, despite the court being named as a defendant in a federal suit filed by the disgruntled appellant-defendant.

In Christopher J. Stephens v. State of Indiana, 20A05-0702-CR-95, Stephens appealed his felony conviction of nonsupport of his child, as well as issues that should have been challenged during his child support proceedings or trial on the matter.

Unhappy with the results of his child support order and conviction, Stephens and his father, Michael Jack Stephens, filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District court, Southern District of Indiana, against "all members" of the Indiana Court of Appeals, Michael Jack and Christopher Joe Stephens, et al. v. Elkhart County Superior Court No. 6, et al. 1:07-CV-0671-LJM-TAB.

In a footnote, Judge Michael Barnes references the lawsuit, "Because the lawsuit names 'all members,' it would be impossible to resolve this present appeal if all the judges of this court recused themselves. Therefore, the 'rule of necessity' mandates that we address this appeal because there is no one else to do it."

In the Court of Appeals opinion, Stephens brought up four issues for appeal: whether the trial court properly prohibited him from collaterally attacking the child support order entered by another court in a prior proceeding; whether the trial court properly denied his Baston challenge; whether the trial court properly rejected his affirmative defense of inability to pay; and whether there was sufficient evidence to enhance his conviction to a Class C felony of nonsupport.

Stephens had a child with Jessica Sluss and was originally order to pay her $64 a week in child support. Sluss petitioned for a modification of the order, which Stephens attended with no attorney, did not present documents showing his weekly or yearly earnings, and brought to court paperwork that reflected he earned $1,375.77 a week as a truck driver. Stephens claimed more than $850 came out of that total to cover fuel costs. The trial court increased his weekly support payments to $263.26 based on the $1,375.77. The trial court told Stephens in September 2004 that until he presented documentation to show his weekly gross income, that amount would stand.

Stephens never petitioned to modify the order and never made any payments to Sluss. He did not show up for court, was arrested in Georgia, and in January 2006 was charged with Class D felony nonsupport between July and November 2005 and Class C felony for nonsupport in excess of $15,000.

A jury found Stephens guilty of the Class D felony charge, and the trial court heard the enhancement portion of the trial and found him guilty of the Class C felony.

During the trial, Stephens was collaterally estopped from arguing the validity of the child support order increasing his weekly payments. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in collaterally estopping Stephens because child support modification orders must be challenged during proceedings or by direct appeal from the proceedings and not relitigated at the criminal court, wrote Judge Barnes.

The trial court was also not erroneous in overruling Stephen's objection to dismissing the only potential African-American juror. The trial court record shows the juror was dismissed because she said she found it difficult to accept how someone who was in prison and unable to pay child support could be convicted, not because of her race or gender.

The trial court correctly established that Stephens did not adequately prove his inability to pay the modified child support amount. The jury and trial court considered all evidence, including Stephens' and his father's testimony. The Court of Appeals also affirmed his conviction of the Class D felony based on state statute and evidence of arrearage presented during the bench trial, including testimony from the Elkhart Prosecutor's Office Child Support Division.

In May 2007, Stephens and his father filed the federal lawsuit naming several defendants, including the entire Court of Appeals, attorney general, Elkhart County Sheriff, and Elkhart County judges. In the brief, Stephens and his father contend the "judges, lawyers, court officers, CASA, and the like" did not follow the law and had "the Indiana Code and Child Support Guidelines been followed instead of being rewritten by the judge, we would NOT have this action to perform."
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