Limits on Court’s Power to Imprison

§ 20 of the Alabama Constitution provides that no person shall be imprisoned for debt. So how does that square with the court’s power to use jail time to put delinquent child support and alimony payers in jail? The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals has clarified that question in Dolberry v. Dolberry, Case No. 2031081 (Ala. Civ. App. July 22, 2005).

The Alabama Supreme Court has held that alimony is not a debt within the meaning of § 20, because it is in the nature of support. Ex parte Thompson, 210 So. 2d 808 (Ala. 1968). The subject obligation in Dolberry, however, was not alimony; it was a duty on the part of the husband to pay the wife $15,000 for her share of the equity in the home.

The trial court had ordered the husband to jail each weekend “until [the husband] purges himself of this contempt order.” The Appeals court reversed. Citing many cases and interpeting their subtle shadings on either side of the debt/support continuum, the Appeals Court held that the facts in Dolberry were closer to those cases characterizing the obligation as a debt.

In this case, the husband argues that he cannot be imprisoned for debt pursuant to § 20, Ala. Const. 1901. He is correct. The parties’ marriage settlement agreement states: “The [husband] shall pay to the [wife] the sum of Fifteen Thousand Dollars ($ 15,000) for her equity in the home.” In Thomas v. Thomas, [406 So. 2d 939 (Ala. Civ. App. 1981)], the former husband was ordered to pay mortgage payments on the marital home that the former wife was awarded for 12 months or until the former wife could return to work. In that case, this court recognized that those payments were for sustenance and support, and, therefore, outside the scope of § 20 . . . The $ 15,000 payment is clearly a property settlement, as evidenced by the language in the settlement agreement “for her equity in the home.” Therefore, the nonpayment of that debt is within the ambit of § 20, Ala. Const. 1901.

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