No. 949 Pittsburgh, 1981, Appeal from the Orders of the Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile Division of Erie County at No. 536-D of 1981.
Carmela R. M. Presogna, Assistant Public Defender, Erie, for Melissa Miller, appellant.
Dennis V. Williams, Erie, for Edward Christoph, appellant.
Stephen A. Tetuan, Erie, for mother, participating party.
Dana S. Jones, Assistant District Attorney, Erie, for Commonwealth, participating party.
Spaeth, Johnson and Hoffman, JJ. Johnson, J., files a dissenting opinion.
[ 301 Pa. Super. Page 513]
This is an appeal from an order declaring appellant's common law marriage invalid and adjudging her a dependent child. We reverse.
At the time the events in question occurred, appellant was fourteen years old and a student in the eighth-grade. She lived with her mother in Erie. Her English teacher was one Edward Christoph, who was thirty-six years old. Early in the fall of 1980, appellant and Mr. Christoph became romantically involved. Sometime in October of 1980, appellant's mother found two letters from Mr. Christoph to appellant; they were affectionate in nature, saying "I love you" and "[t]hings of that nature." N.T. 8/4/81, 48. Appellant's mother confronted appellant with the letters and forbade her to see Mr. Christoph. She also discussed the matter with the school authorities, and appellant was later transferred from Mr. Christoph's English class. However, appellant continued to see Mr. Christoph, by sneaking out of the house from time to time.
During this time, appellant's relationship with her mother became turbulent,*fn1 and on April 10, 1981, appellant ran away
[ 301 Pa. Super. Page 514]
and was placed by Children's Services of Erie County at the home of her aunt and uncle. In July, appellant ran away from their home and was later found at Mr. Christoph's home. On July 17, after a brief stay in a foster home, appellant returned to her mother's home to live. On July 21, 1981, at about 3:00 a. m., appellant met Mr. Christoph and entered into a common law marriage with him at the home of his sister and brother-in-law, who served as witnesses to the marriage.
Appellant's mother is opposed to the marriage. On July 22, 1981, she filed a petition alleging that appellant was a dependent child. The lower court ordered appellant detained at a foster home, and on August 4, after an adjudication hearing, adjudged her dependent and ordered that she "not have contact in any manner" with Mr. Christoph. This appeal is from that order.
During the adjudication hearing the lower court correctly stated that
[i]f in fact there is a marriage [of appellant and Mr. Christoph], then she [appellant] would no longer be under the responsibility and care of the mother. Therefore, the basis for the [dependency] petition would fail.
In its opinion, filed in response to this appeal, the lower court did not question the testimony that appellant and Mr. Christoph had by words in the present tense expressed their intent to marry one another, as required if parties are to
[ 301 Pa. Super. Page 515]
enter into a common law marriage.*fn2 Commonwealth v. Sullivan, 484 Pa. 130, 398 A.2d 978 (1979); Stauffer Estate, 372 Pa. 537, 94 A.2d 726 (1953). The court held, however, that appellant's marriage to Mr. Christoph was invalid because "one of Mr. Christoph's express motives in marrying Melissa Miller [appellant] was to avoid criminal prosecution." Slip op. at 3-4. Said the court:
Mr. Christoph testified that at the time the alleged marriage occurred, he was aware that the District Attorney's Office was contemplating filing criminal charges against him based on his sexual involvement with the minor, Melissa. (Tr. 65). Upon learning that he was the subject of a criminal investigation, Mr. Christoph consulted an attorney who advised him of the requisites for a common law marriage (Tr. 73-74).
Virginia Byers, Mr. Christoph's sister and a witness to the alleged marriage ceremony, testified that one of Mr. Christoph's express motives in marrying Melissa Miller was to avoid criminal prosecution (Tr. 84-86).
The Court finds it abundantly clear that Mr. Christoph's purpose in uttering the words "I will marry you" was to prevent Melissa from appearing as a witness against him in a criminal proceeding. And, this Court will no more condone fraudulent behavior of this sort in a common law marriage than it would in any other marriage.
The court also said that Mr. Christoph's "sole purpose [in getting married] was to perpetrate a fraud upon this Court and Melissa Miller." Slip op. at 4.
When we review a decision by a lower court, we must accept findings of fact supported by the evidence, for the lower court is in a much better position than we are to resolve conflicts in the evidence and issues of credibility. However, we are not bound to accept findings not supported by the evidence; nor are we bound to accept the lower
[ 301 Pa. Super. Page 516]
court's inferences from the evidence, or its conclusions of law. Frowen v. Blank, 493 Pa. 137, 425 A.2d 412 (1981); Hankin v. Hankin, 279 Pa. Superior Ct. 179, 420 A.2d 1090 (1980).
Here, we have encountered some difficulty in accepting the lower court's statement of Mr. Christoph's motive in entering into the marriage. Although the court stated that it found it "abundantly clear" that Mr. Christoph's motive was "to prevent [appellant] from appearing as a witness against him in a criminal proceeding," slip op. at 4, the evidence is, at the least, equivocal.
Mr. Christoph testified that his motive was that appellant should "be my wife" and that his understanding, when he told her this, was that no criminal charges were going to be brought against him:
Q. What did you say to Melissa before the persons present at the Byers' home on that occasion?
A. I said, "I marry you, Melissa."
Q. And what did you intend when you said you married her?
A. I intended that she be my wife.
Q. And as your wife what was your intention towards her?
A. To take her home to live with me as my wife.
Q. Did you recognize any responsibility when you said those words?
Q. What were the responsibilities that you recognized?
A. To take her, provide a home and all the necessities that you would normally provide for your wife.
Q. Mr. Christoph, at the time this alleged marriage is to have taken place between you and Missy, do you know -- were you aware of the fact that the police were investigating you?
[ 301 Pa. Super. Page 517]
A. I had talked to the police at the time, yes.
Q. Were you afraid that charges would be filed against you by the police as a result of your involvement with Missy?
Q. You were not afraid of that?
Q. The crime, corrupting the moral[s] of minors, have you ever heard of that at the time you got married to Missy?
Q. Did you have any concerns at the time this alleged marriage is to have taken place with you being charged by the police?
A. Because when I talked to Detective Slupski he said no charges would be brought.
Q. Isn't it a fact you got married to Missy to prevent her from testifying against you and as a result you wouldn't have to face criminal charges?
THE COURT: As far as the police investigation, you were aware of that because you talked to a police officer?
THE COURT: And you spoke to him about the charge of corrupting the ...