Posted at: 02/13/2014 10:48 PM
By: John Doetkott
(ABC 6 News) -- On Thursday, the Minnesota Supreme Court made a decision that could change the way future child support cases are handled.
Larry Nelson of Rochester owed more than 11 years’ worth of child support, totaling around $83,000 dollars. Nelson fought a felony conviction for not paying because he said there's no proof that he didn't care or support his children.
The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with Nelson, saying the wording of "care and support” is ambiguous.
Some argue that phrase includes financial support, but the justices maintained the law is unclear.
"What the supreme court did was they said, ‘Well, here's a law that can be interpreted two or three different ways,’ and when a law can be interpreted two or three different ways, then you really have to err on the side of the defendant,” said Kevin Siefken, an attorney with Christian & Peterson, P.A. in Albert Lea.
Siefken practices both family and criminal law, and said the ruling will make it more difficult to prosecute these kinds of cases in the future.
"The way the statute's interpreted now, the kinds of non-custodial parents who still are active in their kids’ lives probably can't be charged with a felony,” Siefken said.
And for many, that's unwelcome news.
"It's disappointing,” said Danielle Teal, a single mother. “It also creates a loophole. I mean, how many more cases are we going to see that involve this?"
Teal has dealt with her own child support cases before and knows how tough it can be to go without that financial support.
"As a single parent, it's critical for the child's needs to have sufficient support to raise them,” Teal said.
Teal is now an advocate working with lawmakers to strengthen child support laws, and she said at the end of the day, the focus needs to be on the children.
"If we looked and focused on the child, and what the child's needs are and what the support provides, it would change everyone's perspective,” Teal said.
Thursday’s ruling doesn't mean that Nelson won’t have to pay the money he still owes.
Authorities can still seek funds under a different statute of the law, but Siefken said those kinds of cases can take years to sort out.