Michigan Supreme Court Hears Case of Mother Jailed for Being Too Poor to Pay Child Support

October 06, 2011

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic asked the state’s Supreme 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.

After a lengthy hospital stay for a severe mental illness, Selesa Likine lost her job, custody of her three children and was later arrested and jailed for more than 40 days because she could not afford the assessed amount of child support.

“Our most vulnerable members of society, like Ms. Likine, deserve our compassion and support,” said David Moran, U of M Innocence Clinic co-director who argued the case. “Ms. Likine was ultimately arrested, jailed and convicted for being poor. It’s time for the Michigan Supreme Court to end this injustice and allow Ms. Likine to prove that she can’t pay.”

The ACLU of Michigan and the U of M Innocence Clinic are appealing her conviction, arguing that the trial court violated her constitutional rights by not allowing her to prove that she was unable to pay because she was unemployed, disabled and confined to a psychiatric hospital for a portion of the time in which she failed to make payments. At the time of her sentence, the judge failed to instruct the jury that inability to pay was a defense or assess Likine’s financial situation. Last year, a judge adjusted Likine’s child support payments to $25 a month; however, she still owes tens of thousands of dollars in back payments.

The ACLU and Innocence Project have asked the Michigan Supreme Court today to reverse Likine’s conviction and allow for a new trial in which she can raise the defense that she is too poor to pay the assessed child support.

According to the brief: “prohibiting Ms. Likine from presenting evidence of her inability to pay directly conflicts with the Fourteenth Amendment, which both requires a voluntary act or omission for criminal liability and bars a state from criminally punishing the indigent for being unable to pay their obligations.”

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 2008, Likine was arrested, jailed and convicted in Oakland County Circuit Court. She was sentenced to time served and probation for failing to pay the amount owed.

In addition to Moran, Likine is represented by Michigan Innocence Clinic Co-director Bridget McCormack and the ACLU of Michigan’s Michael J. Steinberg.