In re Nolan W., No. S159524

In re Nolan W., No. S159524

Nolan W. was detained immediately after birth under 300(b) W&IC after he and Kayla W. (mother) tested positive for amphetamines. When Kayla agreed to participate in a reunification plan, the court ordered her to enroll in SARMS, a mandatory program for drug-abusing parents in San Diego County dependency cases. Mother failed to comply with the terms of the SARMS program and ultimately reunification services were terminated and a 366.26 hearing set. In addition, the juvenile court found her, under a San Diego County local court rule (rule 6.1.19, PDF), in contempt of court for 60 counts of non-compliance with the terms of the SARMS program and sentenced her to a total of 300 days incarceration for contempt. Mother appealed the contempt order, and the appeals court deemed that a 300-day contempt sentence, imposed after reunification had been terminated, was a clear abuse of discretion. The California Supreme Court granted review to determine whether 213 W&IC authorizes the court to hold a parent in contempt and incarcerate her for failing to comply with a component of a voluntary reunification plan.

Writing for a six-justice majority, Supreme Court Justice Carol Corrigan explained that "[w]hile reunification is the preferred outcome when it serves the interests of both parent and child, no interest is well served by compelling inadequate parents to shoulder responsibilities they are unwilling to accept or unable to discharge." Additionally, Justice Corrigan stated that the punitive nature of the SARMS sanctions, insofar as they impose a punishment for past conduct and there is nothing a parent who has been thus incarcerated can do to purge the contempt, renders the nature of the sanction as criminal contempt rather than civil contempt. Having found nothing in the statute to justify injecting such a punitive measure into the dependency process (where the court exercises jurisdiction over the minor and not the parent, and thus the parent does not receive the normal due process rights that a criminal defendant would have), the Supreme Court deemed the use of contempt citation and imprisonment to enforce the terms of the SARMS program impermissible. The court did not foreclose the possibility that contempt sanctions could apply in other instances in a dependency proceeding, but ruled that contempt sanctions are inappropriate when used "solely for the purpose of punishing a parent's failure to comply with a condition of a reunification case plan."

In a partially concurring and partially dissenting opinion, Justice Marvin Baxter agreed with the majority's opinion to annul the contempt judgment against Kayla W. because, in his view, once reunification services were terminated, "the juvenile court had no discretion to use the sanction of contempt...purely as after-the-fact punishment for failing to follow orders whose sole purpose was the retention of parental rights." However, Justice Baxter partially dissented from the majority and concluded that once a parent voluntarily agrees to participate in reunification services, the court should have available to it other remedies for noncompliance short of terminating reunification. Accordingly, Justice Baxter concluded that, while a 300-day jail sentence is an abuse of discretion here, he did not feel that the use of contempt sanctions to enforce compliance with a reunification plan should necessarily be foreclosed entirely.

Opinion: S159524.PDF, S159524.DOC

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