When police become armed 'bill collectors'

Story highlights

  • Walter Scott was killed by a South Carolina police officer in April
  • Danny Cevallos: Failure to pay child support should be a civil matter, not a crime

Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst, criminal defense attorney and partner at Cevallos & Wong, practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter: @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)It won't come as news to anyone in America today that the authority to make an arrest carries with it the potential to escalate to lethal force. But the seemingly innocuous genesis of police authority (initial stop and question, pulling someone over for a traffic violation) becomes significant because of the potential result (deadly force).

A minor traffic stop can be the springboard to a check for outstanding warrants. An initial stop can therefore lead to an arrest. And an arrest, we know, can have fatal results.
In South Carolina earlier this month, Walter Scott was the subject of a bench warrant for over $18,000 in unpaid child support, according to court records. That means that once he was stopped, he probably knew before the police officer that his own arrest was a foregone conclusion.
    But failure to pay child support is not a crime. At least, not in the traditional sense, though states do criminalize it. It's rightly a civil matter. Skipping child support court should similarly not be a crime either.
    This means that a bench warrant for failing to appear in child support court isn't about catching criminals -- it's bill collection, only with a collection agency bristling with lethal and other weapons, and acting under color of law. This raises some serious questions about what exactly we want our heavily armed law enforcement officers to be doing.
    Not all "warrants" are created equal. Sometimes there are warrants for arrest, which are issued for alleged murders, drug dealing or sexual assault.
    Then there are cases like the Scott case. Bench warrants for deadbeat dads are not arrest warrants for crimes.
    Don't get me wrong. Deadbeat and absent dads are one of the most serious and often overlooked threats to our collective well-being today. Forget the school-to-prison-pipeline. Lousy parents are the prison pipeline; particularly symptomatic of this problem are absent and deadbeat dads.
    Still, given our justifiably dim view of deadbeat dads and child support court scofflaws, there is ultimately something Dickensian in our remedy for enforcement.
    First, it's important to keep in mind that nearly every instance of a family court's intrusion into the private family unit is an undesirable event. Yes, parents who can't resolve noncustodial support can turn to the courts, but once the courts and law enforcement are involved, they do things their way. And it almost always could have been avoided if the family could have resolved issues on their own.
    South Carolina family courts enforce their child support orders through civil contempt proceedings. Oftentimes and sadly so, papa is a rolling stone, and he falls behind on his payments. When a supporting parent has fallen behind, the court clerk sends dad an order to show up in court and explain why he should not be held in contempt for violating the payment order.
    At the hearing, that parent may demonstrate that he is not in contempt by showing that, well, he would love to pay, but right now he's just in the process of getting himself together -- and he actually has a job interview tomorrow or some variation of the well-established language of support shirkers. The bottom line is dad can try to demonstrate he's too poor to pay his