By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
As most people know, divorces may unfortunately turn very nasty. On occasion there are collateral criminal problems which can arise from a party’s conduct either prior to or after the court makes custody determinations for the children. While the blame may often seem trumped-up or baseless — being accused of interference with child custody is as serious as a heart attack because it’s a felony accusation in Texas. Also –as with any criminal prosecution –it is important to remember that the charges are no longer between you and your divorcing spouse; it’s between you and the State of Texas.
Texas Penal Code Section 25.03 is titled “Interference With Child Custody,” and that section reads accordingly:
(a) A person commits an offense if the person takes or retains a child younger than 18 years when the person:
(1) knows that the person’s taking or retention violates the express terms of a judgment or order, including a temporary order, of a court disposing of the child’s custody; or
(2) has not been awarded custody of the child by a court of competent jurisdiction, knows that a suit for divorce or a civil suit or application for habeas corpus to dispose of the child’s custody has been filed, and takes the child out of the geographic area of the counties composing the judicial district if the court is a district court or the county if the court is a statutory county court, without the permission of the court and with the intent to deprive the court of authority over the child.
(b) A noncustodial parent commits an offense if, with the intent to interfere with the lawful custody of a child younger than 18 years, the noncustodial parent knowingly entices or persuades the child to leave the custody of the custodial parent, guardian, or person standing in the stead of the custodial parent or guardian of the child.
(c) It is a defense to prosecution under Subsection (a)(2) that the actor returned the child to the geographic area of the counties composing the judicial district if the court is a district court or the county if the court is a statutory county court, within three days after the date of the commission of the offense.
(d) An offense under this section is a state jail felony.
The legal and factual scenarios and defenses are seemingly endless. Take, just as one example, a case prosecuted under 25.03(a)(1)… A prosecution under that section would probably include a complete order from the Divorce Judge which may or may not be written clearly enough to provide a party with sufficient guidance as to what is or is not permitted for times of custody (at least in the context of criminal liability.)
Also, Section (C) provides what is known as a “safe harbor,” where the offense was committed under 25.03(a)(2)… Which is to say that if the violating person returns the child within 3 days to the area or county controlled by the Court they have a defense to prosecution. This is to facilitate the return of children and to a lesser degree (I suspect) because the criminal justice system has a some biases against getting involved in the micromanagement of custody disputes and orders.
If you are being accused of interference with a child custody order, you should involve competent and qualified criminal representation at once. It’s not something to fool with.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For legal advice about any specific situation you should consult an attorney directly.