If you were able to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, perhaps you will be especially thankful when you hear how one central Alabama woman spent the holiday.
Bonnie Cahalane (Knox) Wyatt, a 46-year-old mother of four, spent Thanksgiving in the Chilton County Jail, where she has been since July 26--even though black-letter state law says her incarceration is unlawful.
How could such an outrage take place? The answer is simple: In way too many jurisdictions across the country, at both the state and federal levels, America is a land "of men, not of laws." That, of course, turns the maxim of Founding Father John Adams--that we are "a government of laws, not of men"--on its head. But a distracted public and a somnolent press allow it to happen.
The case of Bonnie Wyatt is a prime example. Alabama law plainly states that no citizen is subject to a finding of contempt--and possible incarceration--because of failure to pay a property-related debt connected to dissolution of a marriage. To hold otherwise, would return us the days of debtors' prisons. (Actually, debtors' prisons never have totally gone out of style; more than a third of U.S. states allow debtors to be jailed under certain circumstances.)
No such circumstances apply to Bonnie Wyatt's case. But Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds has ordered her jailed for four months, and counting, even though the law says he cannot do that. John Adams must be spinning in his grave.
On paper, Bonnie Wyatt's path to jail started when she apparently signed a settlement agreement in her divorce case, stating she would pay Harold Jay Wyatt $165,000 to satisfy a debt on the marital residence--even though she owned the house in the first place, and they lived together for only 10 months.
Court documents show that the settlement agreement was written on a hand-scribbled sheet of paper that looks anything but formal, and the amount in question appears to be based on little in the way of evidence or testimony. But even if the agreement is ironclad, and the amount is right on the money, Bonnie Wyatt still cannot be subject to contempt--and jail--for failure to pay. Harold Wyatt and his lawyer have a number of civil remedies at their disposal, but those do not include incarceration.
This is not new or complicated law. It is grounded in Sec. 20 of the Alabama Constitution (1901), which holds that "no person shall be imprisoned for debt." Case law expanded on that with Ex parte Thompson, 210 So. 2d 808 (Ala., 1968), which held:
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.
A case styled Dolberry v. Dolberry, 920 So. 2d 573 (Ala., Civ. App., 2005) spells out the law even further. It states that a party who fails to pay alimony, which involves "sustenance and support" for a former spouse, can be jailed for failure to pay. But, per Dolberry, "a property settlement upon dissolution of a marriage" is considered a "debt ex contractu"--and it is not subject to a finding of contempt, much less incarceration. From Dolberry:
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.
Why, then, is Bonnie Wyatt incarcerated, in flagrant violation of Alabama law? In our view, it clearly has nothing to do with her divorce case from Harold Wyatt; that is mere pretext for some other agenda. Judge Sibley Reynolds, it appears, has jailed Ms. Wyatt because someone wants her punished for a reason that has nothing to do with the law--or someone has come to see her as a threat.
Judges, in my experience, only do that kind of thing for people with connections to money, power, or the justice system--or perhaps all three.
What kind of person would stoop so low as to have a woman unlawfully incarcerated? The evidence points in the direction of at least two individuals. And public records suggest they are capable of stooping quite low.
We will begin following that path in an upcoming post.