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LOIS HARRIETT BARRETT v. MERLE EDMUND BARRETT (01/28/77)

decided: January 28, 1977.

LOIS HARRIETT BARRETT
v.
MERLE EDMUND BARRETT, APPELLANT. COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA V. MERLE EDMUND BARRETT, APPELLANT



COUNSEL

John B. Leete, Timothy P. O'Brien, Neighborhood Legal Services Assn., Aliquippa, for appellant.

Anthony J. Berosh, Asst. Dist. Atty., Beaver, for appellees.

Jones, C. J., and Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy and Manderino, JJ. Nix, J., did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case. Manderino, J., joins in this opinion and filed a concurring opinion.

Author: Eagen

[ 470 Pa. Page 257]

OPINION OF THE COURT

These cases, consolidated at both the trial and appellate levels, raise important questions concerning the extent of a court's power to imprison for the contemptuous violation of support orders.

On August 5, 1965, one Lois Harriett Barrett filed a complaint seeking support in the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County against her husband, Merle Edmund Barrett, under the Civil Procedural Support Law, Act of July 13, 1953, P.L. 431, § 1 et seq., 62 P.S. § 2043.31 et seq. Subsequently, the parties entered into a written agreement stipulating that the husband would pay his wife the sum of $50 weekly toward her support and the support of their three minor children. This agreement was then incorporated into a court order. The parties were later divorced.

On February 2, 1971, Barrett pleaded guilty to being the father of a child born out of wedlock to one Lois Kookoothakis. On May 12, 1971, he was sentenced by the court to pay the lying-in expenses and $10 weekly toward the support of the child.

Although Barrett had a series of jobs, he seldom if ever voluntarily complied with either order, and, despite the fact that the support ordered in Barrett v. Barrett was eventually reduced to $25 per week, substantial arrearages accumulated in both cases. In two instances, his wages were attached. In March, 1974, he voluntarily

[ 470 Pa. Page 258]

    quit a 40-hour a week job paying $2.15 an hour at the Marriott Motor Inn in Greentree, Pennsylvania, because of what he termed "harassment" by the mothers of his children and the Beaver County Domestic Relations office of the Court of Common Pleas in attempting to collect the support that was due. In May, 1974, he moved with a "girl friend," one Pat McDanel, to Columbus, Ohio, where the two lived in a house trailer. Barrett did not inform Domestic Relations of his change of address, nor did he pay any support during his stay in Ohio. By June of 1975, the arrearages in Barrett v. Barrett amounted to $16,263.78 and those in Commonwealth v. Barrett were $2,363.83.

In May, 1975, Barrett returned to Pennsylvania for a visit and was taken into custody by the Beaver County authorities. He appeared in court without counsel and, on May 29, 1975, he was adjudged guilty of contempt and committed to jail until such time as he should purge himself by paying $500 on the arrearages in each case. Subsequently, counsel supplied by Neighborhood Legal Services entered an appearance on his behalf and petitioned the court to revoke the contempt orders. On June 6, the court did so, and Barrett was released from prison when Ms. McDanel posted an appearance bond for him in the sum of $1,000. On June 19, a rule to show cause why he should not be held in contempt for willfully violating the support orders was issued on Barrett. After a hearing on July 3, the court determined that probable cause to issue an attachment existed and doubled the bond requirement; when this requirement was not met, Barrett was recommitted to prison. On August 4, an evidentiary hearing was held after which, in an opinion and orders ...


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