|Bonnie Cahalane (Knox) Wyatt|
A central Alabama woman remains in the Chilton County Jail over an alleged debt connected to her divorce settlement, even though her incarceration clearly is contrary to state law.
Bonnie Cahalane (Knox) Wyatt has been in jail since July 26, closing in on four months, and apparently will remain behind bars for the Thanksgiving holiday. That's under orders from Chilton County Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds, who presided over the Wyatt v. Wyatt divorce case that was settled in May 2011.
Reynolds' order, however, presents a problem: It is against the law. That is perhaps most evident in a case styled Dolberry v. Dolberry, 920 So. 2d 573 (Ala. Civ. App., 2005).
The finding in Dolberry confirms what we have suspected for some time about the Bonnie Wyatt case: (1) She is being incarcerated as punishment for a political or social reason that has nothing to do with her divorce from Harold Jay Wyatt; (2) The ACLU, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, and any other appropriate organization or agency needs to pay an immediate visit to Clanton, Alabama.
That a citizen could be unlawfully jailed--on the orders of one judge. who obviously is incompetent, corrupt or both--is an outrage that should not be tolerated.
Reynolds ordered Bonnie Wyatt's arrest after she failed to pay a $165,000 debt that was incorporated into her divorce settlement with Harold Wyatt. Upon payment, Mr. Wyatt was to satisfy a debt on the marital residence and convey his interest in the home to Ms. Wyatt.
We have noted in previous posts that the settlement agreement was dubious on numerous grounds--the court record shows a one-page, hand-written document that appears to be neither formal nor final; it came from a mediation session, but it's unclear if it was based on any testimony or documentation; Ms. Wyatt claims that information was withheld from her during the mediation process.
Even if the settlement agreement was legitimate, the fallout from it is not. Reynolds ordered Ms. Wyatt's arrest when she failed to pay the $165,000 in the prescribed time. And that, by law, cannot be done.
We already have one Alabama citizen who is a political prisoner; I'm talking, of course, about former Governor Don Siegelman, who currently resides in a federal prison at Oakdale, Louisiana--even though his convictions were based on unlawful jury instructions, and the key bribery charge was brought almost one full year past the five-year statute of limitations. But now we have a woman who is being held in what amounts to a debtor's prison, even though that clearly is unlawful? Will this finally alert someone in position of authority that Alabama's "justice system"--both state and federal--is broken beyond repair.
In some ways, the Bonnie Wyatt story might be an even bigger outrage than the Siegelman saga--and that is saying something. Siegelman was a veteran office holder who obviously made powerful enemies from winning elections as a Democrat in an increasingly Republican state; Siegelman was targeted for utterly bogus reasons, but he had the resources and support to put up a powerful defense. And the Siegelman case at least involved a jury verdict, even though it was flawed because of unlawful instructions from an ethically compromised trial-court judge.
Meanwhile, court records show that Bonnie Wyatt is a mother of four who simply tried to extricate herself from a marriage that was a mistake pretty much from the outset; she and Harold Wyatt lived together as husband and wife for only about 10 months, so it's hard to see how she came to owe him $165,000. It's even harder to understand how Judge Sibley Reynolds--with no statutory or case law to support it, and no jury to bless it--could order Ms. Wyatt to jail.
It's not as if the controlling law is complicated. Sec. 20 of the Alabama Constitution (1901) plainly states that "no person shall be imprisoned for debt." A search through case law reveals one exception to that general rule, but it does not apply to Bonnie Wyatt's situation. That means she has been unlawfully jailed for almost four months . . . and counting.
By the way, this is not a "matter of first impression." The key case law dates to 1968--and it is based, in part, on a case that dates to 1888. A veteran Alabama judge can't get law right when it's been in place for almost 125 years? Good grief.
Scores of cases over that time period could spell it out for Judge Reynolds. But Dolberry v. Dolberry does a splendid job, and it's only seven years old. A third grader could find it, and grasp it, with a simple Google search.
What were the facts in Dolberry? Except for the dollar amount and the gender of the spouse to be incarcerated, they were almost identical to those in Wyatt. The husband in Dolberry was to pay the wife $15,000 for her equity in the marital home. When the husband failed to pay, the trial court found him in contempt of the divorce judgment and ordered him jailed on weekends until he "purges himself of this contempt order."
The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals reversed, citing a case styled Ex Parte Thompson, 210 So. 2d 808 (Ala., 1968). Thompson, in turn, cites Murray v. Murray, 4 So. 239 (Ala., 1888). The key finding in Thompson:
Because the payments were not for the sustenance and support of his former wife, (Sec.) 20, Ala. Const. 1901, applied, and Thompson could not be imprisoned for the failure to pay a debt.
That gets to the exception we mentioned earlier that applies to marriage-related debt in Alabama--and I believe in all other states, as well. An award of alimony goes to sustenance and support, meaning it can be coerced by a contempt citation. But, per Dolberry, "a property settlement upon dissolution of a marriage" is considered a "debt ex contractu." The court explains:
This ordinary money obligation is not attended with any of those peculiar equitable considerations which attach to alimony. Therefore, the debt created by the agreement of the parties hereto is within the ambit of Section 20, supra, and is not subject to enforcement by contempt proceedings.
Bottom line? You can be held in contempt and jailed for failure to pay alimony. You cannot be held in contempt and jailed for failure to pay a property settlement.
So why is Bonnie Wyatt in jail, and what should be done about the damages she has sustained? What should be done to ensure that other Alabama citizens do not experience similar court-sanctioned abuse?
We will address those questions in an upcoming post.