March 2012 Archives

March 29, 2012

Bigamy Charge Results When Social Media Connects Man's Wife to His Other Wife

994424_51659180_03302012.jpgFacebook, the wildly popular social networking website, offers an automated service that matches users to other users it thinks the person might know. It looks at shared friends and interests and occasionally notifies a user that it has one or more friend suggestions. For a corrections officer in Seattle, this feature caused some trouble, as it matched up his new wife with the woman he married a decade ago but never divorced. Alan L. O'Neill now faces a charge of bigamy, which could get him up to a year in jail.

O'Neill, formerly known as Alan Fulk, married his first wife on April 16, 2001. The two lived together for a number of years, but they separated in 2009. Although they have lived separately ever since, they apparently never obtained a divorce. He has reportedly worked as a Pierce County, Washington corrections officer for about five years.

In 2011, O'Neill petitioned to change his last name from Fulk to O'Neill. A judge approved the name change, and shortly afterwards, on December 19, 2011, he married his second wife.

In early 2012, O'Neill's first wife was using Facebook when she received a recommendation that she become "friends" with the second wife. The two knew each other. According to the Associated Press, O'Neill's first wife was arrested in 2010 because of an "altercation" with O'Neill's then-future second wife. When the first wife viewed the other woman's Facebook page, she found pictures of her and O'Neill, dated a few weeks earlier, dressed for a wedding and cutting a wedding cake.

She reportedly called O'Neill's mother immediately after finding the pictures. The mother apparently told O'Neill, who showed up at the first wife's apartment within an hour. When asked, O'Neill confirmed that they were still married, but that he would "fix it." He asked her not to tell anyone about the two marriages. Instead, she contacted law enforcement, who searched court records to determine O'Neill's marital status. Prosecutors charged him with one count of bigamy on March 8.

All U.S. states prohibit multiple marriages through both their family and criminal codes, but states vary in how they treat the criminal side of the issue. Under just about any state's system of family law, a marriage that a person enters into while still married to someone else is void. Some states impose criminal penalties on a person who knowingly marries more than one person, while others punish both parties to a second marriage.

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March 22, 2012

California Bill Would Prevent Convicted Abusers from Receiving Spousal Maintenance

528902_48194552_03262012.jpgA bill pending in the California Legislature intends to close a loophole that sometimes causes abused spouses to owe maintenance payments to their abusers. Under the bill, people convicted of certain criminal offenses committed against a spouse would be precluded from obtaining benefits, such as spousal maintenance or attorney's fees, from the abused spouse in a divorce case. The law would also amend the California Family Code to award one hundred percent of the community estate to a spouse who is the victim of a "violent sexual felony" committed by the other spouse. The Family Code currently awards one hundred percent of the community estate to one spouse when the other spouse is convicted of either the attempted murder or solicitation of the murder of that spouse.

The bill, filed in the state Assembly as AB 1522, passed the Judiciary Committee on a 7-1 vote on March 20. The bill was introduced by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, and it has the support of the San Diego District Attorney, the California District Attorneys' Association, and the San Diego Board of Supervisors.

A San Diego case, previously reported in this San Diego Divorce Attorney Blog, inspired the bill. Crystal Harris, a San Diego financial analyst, was ordered by the judge in her divorce case to pay $3,000 per month to her ex-husband in spousal maintenance. This was despite the fact that her ex-husband, Shawn Harris, is serving a six-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting her. The judge reduced the spousal maintenance amount to $1,000 per month because of the domestic violence allegations. On appeal, the order of spousal maintenance was reversed, based in large part on Crystal Harris' argument that Shawn Harris has no expenses while in prison. Under current law, he could ask the court for spousal maintenance again when he is released. His release is scheduled for 2014 if he serves his entire sentence.

In a separate proceeding, a judge ordered Crystal Harris to pay her ex-husband $47,000 in attorney's fees. This was based on an agreement the Harrises made before Shawn Harris' criminal case, one that Crystal Harris does not believe should have been honored given subsequent events. The total amount later came down to $26,000 when the amount of restitution owed by Shawn Harris in his criminal case was deducted from the total.

Crystal Harris testified before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in support of the bill on March 19. She says she felt "re-victimized" by the spousal maintenance and attorney's fee orders. Other supporters of the bill say it is necessary to prevent a second injustice against domestic violence victims, and to give "peace of mind" to said victims.

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March 19, 2012

Senate Democrats Push for Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act

948508_88800125_03192012.jpgDemocrats in the United States Senate began a push to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), along with new provisions that would expand the law's protections to additional groups of people. The proposal has proven controversial, which may not be surprising considering the contentious political atmosphere in Washington at the moment. Supporters of the law, which has found broad support in Congress in the past, argue that it is necessary to provide protection to certain vulnerable groups. Critics in the Senate have expressed general support for the new bill, but also concern over some of its provisions. Some Republicans have questioned the timing of the campaign for reauthorization, but a full debate has not yet occurred that might illuminate competing positions on the law.

VAWA became law in 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed it. It had passed Congress with broad support. The law authorized up to $1.6 billion to go towards enhancing law enforcement's ability to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women. It made people convicted of violent crimes against women liable to their victims for restitution, and it provided victims with a form of civil relief if prosecutors opted not to prosecute their cases.

VAWA also provides funds for a variety of services to help victims of domestic violence and programs to educate the public about the issues. It supports community programs aimed at preventing violence, programs for immigrant women, crisis support services, and legal aid. The law includes provisions to help victims who have disabilities, and it provides protection for women who face eviction due to domestic violence-related incidents. VAWA has been instrumental in providing resources for people in abusive relationships who need assistance with divorce, child custody, and other legal matters.

Congress reauthorized VAWA with broad bipartisan support in 2000 and 2005. The 2000 reauthorization created the Office on Violence Against Women as part of the Department of Justice. The Office administers grants and helps develop national policies relating to domestic and dating violence and sexual assault. The statute requires reauthorization in 2012 or the law will expire.

The proposed reauthorization would expand the law's protections to immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, Native Americans, and same-sex couples. It would give Native American tribes jurisdiction to prosecute non-members who are accused of violence against tribe members. This would, according to NPR, supersede a 1978 Supreme Court ruling holding that tribal courts lack that jurisdiction, even if the alleged crime occurs on a reservation.

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March 15, 2012

"Baby-Selling" Scandal Illuminates Some Features of Contracts in Family Cases

1281126_37028477_03142012.jpgA scandal that the news media describe as a "baby-selling ring" has led to prison sentences for a San Diego attorney and another woman implicated in the matter. The case involves some relatively-unknown areas of both family and criminal law. Some aspects of the case relate to more familiar areas of the law, however, such as pre-nuptial agreements and child custody agreements. The case illuminates in some ways the care that must be taken in drafting agreements that relate to the custody and support of children.

Surrogacy, the process by which someone agrees to be implanted with a fertilized egg from another couple, carry it to term, and then turn the child over to that couple after it is born, is not subject to an uniform set of regulations. The parents and the surrogate enter into a contract outlining expenses, fees, and arrangements for the child. State statutes relating to surrogacy vary in how they treat contracts between parents and surrogates. The alleged baby-selling ring, according to prosecutors, involved recruiting surrogates and potential adoptive parents. Theresa Erickson, a San Diego lawyer specializing in surrogacy issues, Carla Chambers of New Zealand, and several other people were reportedly involved in the recruiting process. They would fly surrogates from the U.S. to a clinic in Ukraine, where the surrogates would be impregnated with "designer embryos" from various donors. The children would then be "sold" to adoptive parents back in the United States during the second trimester. Adoptive parents would be told that a prior surrogacy contract had "fallen through." People would reportedly pay up to $200,000 for an adoption.

The federal criminal case against Erickson and Chambers revolved around the fact that the children in question were conceived, and sometimes born, before there was a valid surrogacy or adoption contract. The defendants thus created an "inventory" of babies. According to prosecutors, neither the surrogates nor the adoptive parents were aware of this. The law requires that a surrogacy contract be in place before the surrogate is implanted with the fertilized egg. The specific criminal charges related to falsified surrogacy documents sent to California courts.

Erickson, Chambers, and Maryland attorney Hilary Neiman pleaded guilty in 2011 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. A judge sentence Neiman to one year of confinement, including both prison and house arrest, later last year. A judge sentenced Erickson to five months in prison and nine months house arrest in February. Chambers received a five-month prison sentence and seven months' house arrest.

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