Man serves time in error

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

Tennessee's Criminal Appeals Court has dismissed charges against a Lewisburg man incarcerated on a contempt charge in connection with his failure to pay child support.

"It's time I can't get back," said Adrian Bennielle Hill, who spent nearly six months in jail. "It's not a win for me. It's a win for anybody who might find themselves in this situation.

"I've moved past it," Hill said Monday of the ruling filed Sept. 5. "It's all irrelevant now."

Circuit Court Judge Lee Russell ruled in Hill's case. Fifteen months ago, District Attorney Robert Carter asked Russell to find Hill guilty of contempt for not paying child support.

Hill, 33, was incarcerated after proving he was living with and supporting the mother of one of his children and others, Carter said Monday.

However, "In child support cases, when the custodial parent and child get TennCare, the prosecutor doesn't have a choice," Carter said. "The father must pay child support... If the children are getting benefits, the father must pay the state back.

"You're not paying momma, you're paying back to the state," he said, explaining why he petitioned the court for April M. Haley and Latisha Greer, mothers of Hill's children.

"It's not unusual for the momma to say 'Don't put him in jail,'" Carter said. Hill's bench trial included testimony from Haley asking Russell to not incarcerate Hill.

"The non-custodial parent is obligated to pay for those benefits," said Carter. He was an assistant district attorney in June 2011 when he asked Russell to find Hill in contempt for not paying child support.

The contempt charges, convictions and sentences were dismissed by the appeals court because Hill was denied his rights to have the grand jury review the contempt charges and to a jury trial.

Russell found Hill guilty under a law punishing nonsupport with incarceration, but Judge Jeffrey Bivins wrote for the Appeals Court that Russell "erred in construing this statute as a contempt statute," since it doesn't include the word contempt.

Hill was incarcerated 183 days, according to his lawyer, Robert Dalton of Lewisburg, who said, "The children were rendered homeless."

There was a procedural defect, Dalton said. Hill was charged under a general criminal statute, not the law punishing people for nonsupport.

"As a result, the regular judicial proceedings apply," including grand jury consideration and a jury trial. "Contempt is a separate issue."

Russell didn't comment Friday citing the judicial code of ethics.

Haley confirmed that she and Hill have a child together and that she and her children have lived in public housing.

"She and the children received government benefits, including TennCare and Food Stamps," Carter said. Hill "refused to have a lawyer appointed ... refused to hire a lawyer ... and demanded a hearing... we had to have a hearing ... he lost because he hadn't paid."

Dalton said Hill "got into trouble when he was younger and ... it's difficult to go back to a normal life."