When Keeping Kids Is a Crime

Hammack v. State, No. PD-0636-19, Tex. Crim. App. May 19, 2021. Judge Newell wrote for the 7-2 majority; Presiding Judge Keller and Judge Keel dissented.

Michael Anthony Hammack was convicted of the crime of interference with child custody and sentenced to five years’ probation. On appeal, he argued that the evidence was legally insufficient to convict him because there was no proof he knew the express terms of the order he was charged with violating. The Texarkana Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, as did the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Hammack was charged and convicted of interference with child custody. The Penal Code makes it a state jail felony to “take[] or retain[] a child younger than 18 years of age” if the person taking or retaining the child “knows that [doing so] violates the express terms of a judgment or order, including a temporary order, of a court disposing of the child’s custody.” Tex. Penal Code § 25.03(a)(1), (d).

I want to point out that neither the majority nor the dissent discussed the taking-or-retaining element in any depth. According to the majority’s recitation of the facts, Hammack’s daughter escaped CPS custody and went to her grandmother’s. Even if she wound up in Hammack’s physical custody, one could argue that he never took her from CPS’s custody. Was it sufficient that he “took” her from her grandmother’s? The court doesn’t say.

Instead, the appeal focused on Hammack’s knowledge of the express terms of the order he violated. Hammack did not challenge the existence of the order or that he violated it. He conceded that CPS had obtained an emergency order giving CPS temporary custody of his 16-year-old daughter. He also conceded that he violated that order by keeping the girl for about a week after she “escaped” CPS custody. (Among other things, he chased CPS out of his mother’s house, where the girl was staying, and took her to Oklahoma for a shotgun wedding to her 18-year-old boyfriend.)

Instead, Hammack challenged his conviction on the ground that he could not have known that keeping the girl for a week “violate[d] the express terms” of the order because he had not been formally (or informally) served with the order or told its express terms.

The majority concluded that he had been told the express terms and held that formal service of the order violated is not an element of the crime of interference with child custody. The statute only requires proof that the defendant knew his conduct violated the express terms of the order. While proof of service “may provide sufficient evidence of knowledge in a given case,” it is not necessary in every case. The State can also carry its burden with circumstantial evidence. In this case, the State presented evidence that Hammack was told about the order on three different occasions, including specifically the “express term” that gave CPS custody.

The dissent disagreed about whether he was told the express terms of the order. The dissent emphasized the distinction between being told that CPS had “custody” and being told that CPS had “sole custody.” Here, Hammack was told several times that CPS had been given “custody,” not “sole custody.” Without that key word (“sole”), the dissent would have determined that there was not sufficient evidence to support the conviction.

The majority took some pains to distinguish Tex. Penal Code § 25.07 and Harvey v. State, 78 S.W.3d 368 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002). Section 25.07 criminalizes the violation of a list of “statutorily defined orders, each one having specific notice requirements, among them actual service, necessary to make each respective order ‘binding’.” Section 25.03, on the other hand, criminalizes the violation of custody orders, which may or may not require prior notice to be binding. For example, an ex parte CPS removal order is binding with or without service for up to 14 days. See Tex. Fam. Code § 262.102, 103.

In sum—formal service of the violated order is not an essential element of the crime of interference with child custody. Though the state must prove knowledge of the express terms of the order, it may do so through circumstantial evidence, such as testimony by a witness that she told the offender about the order in sufficient detail that he knew what its express terms required.

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