Court Must Overturn Conviction of Mother Too Poor to Pay Child Support, ACLU Says

March 04, 2010

Lansing, Mich. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Michigan Innocence Clinic asked an appeals court today to overturn the felony conviction of a Detroit woman who was too poor to pay more than $1,100 a month in child support. Selesa Likine suffers from a severe mental illness that has resulted in her losing both her job and the custody of her three children.

“Today we have an opportunity to set the standard for how we treat our most vulnerable members of society – people like Ms. Likine, whose only ‘crime’ is being poor,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director. “With more Michiganders on the edge of economic catastrophe, it is more important than ever to stop the government’s attempts to resurrect debtor’s prisons from the dustbin of history.”

In 2005, Selesa Likine was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. After a lengthy hospital stay, she was terminated from her job and has not been able to work since. In 2007, despite the fact that her only income was the $603 a month she received in Social Security benefits, the court increased her child support payments from $181 to $1131 a month. The Friend of the Court mistakenly recommended the larger amount because of a commission Likine received in a one-time transaction selling real estate. It was her only sale and her real estate license lapsed in 2006 because she couldn’t pay for renewal and continuing education costs.

For years, Likine attempted unsuccessfully to have the child support payments modified. In November 2008, Likine was convicted in Oakland County Circuit Court and later sentenced to probation for failing to pay the amount owed.

Today, the ACLU of Michigan and the Michigan Innocence Clinic are appealing her conviction, arguing before the Michigan Court of Appeals that the trial court violated her constitutional rights by not allowing her to present evidence that she was unable to pay her assessed child support and by not instructing the jury that inability to pay is a defense.

According to the brief, “Had the jury heard that she was unable to obtain employment after September 2005 because of her mental illness, Ms. Likine would have had a reasonably likely chance of acquittal by the jury. The error was therefore sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.”

Last month, a judge adjusted Likine’s child support payments to $25 a month; however, she still owes tens of thousands of dollars in back payments.

In addition to Steinberg, Likine is represented by Michigan Innocence Clinic Co-directors Bridget McCormack and David A. Moran. Moran argued today’s appeal.

To read the brief on appeal, click here.

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