When Custody Agreement Confusion Leads to Criminal Charges

There was an interesting story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the other day about a Wilkinsburg man being jailed for interference of a custody order.

Here’s what happened: The mother of a two-year-old girl died, and a custody hearing was subsequently held.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, there was a custody hearing, but the man, Tex Ortiz, 32, did not attend the hearing and interim custody was granted to the child’s maternal grandmother. The grandmother had expressed concern about the environment Ortiz would have the girl in.

Mr. Ortiz had cut an electronic monitoring bracelet off his ankle when he went to get his daughter. He had been serving a sentence of home confinement on a drug charge in Blair County.

The paper alleges Mr. Ortiz removed his daughter from Allegheny County and refused to return her when contacted by authorities.

However, later in the story, the gentleman’s attorney noted that his client had not seen the custody order – and that the first time Ortiz saw it was when he handed it to him during a jail visit. The court has a record of him receiving it in their docket, they say.

I wrote recently how being unaware that you are committing a crime isn’t a proper defense for breaking one, and I stand by that opinion.

But that said, it seems as though (at least from my perspective as a Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer) custody orders are ripe for people to misunderstand or misinterpret.

Loyal readers of this blog may recall I just wrote about custody hearings – and how sometimes, a snap decision or change in plans can lead to being charged with violating a custody order.

So, parents dealing with child-custody agreements: Confused about the verbiage in the order? Not sure if you need to attend a hearing? Not quite clear on what your rights and responsibilities are according to the child-custody agreement? Then you need to call a family law attorney.

Let me put it to you another way: Would you rather call a family law attorney for help understanding your rights and responsibilities under a child-custody agreement or a criminal defense lawyer to help you understand how best to handle a charge of interfering with the custody of a child and possibly kidnapping?

You decide.

As long as your case is under the family law, you can go ahead with the family law attorney, but if things become far worse and there are criminal activities involved, you have to immediately get in touch with a criminal defense lawyer. Fighting for your child’s custody is different than if your child has been kidnapped.

Under Pennsylvania law, it is completely illegal to either recklessly or deliberately take a child and convince him or her to leave the custody of his or her lawful guardian or parent in cases where you are not privileged to do so. Once you are convicted, you will be subjected to felony charges, and there is a possibility of several harsh penalties.

Typically, in cases like this, the official charge will be Custodial Interference. It’s a third-degree felony, but in some circumstances, it becomes a second-degree felony, which is harsher. In the first instance, the penalty is a fine of $15,000 and a jail sentence of seven years. In the second, the offender faces a fine of $25,000 and ten years in prison. A conviction for Mr. Ortiz could mean he won’t see his daughter outside of prison visits until she’s in double digits.

Criminal activities involving child custody battles or divorce cases is quite common among those parents who are insecure about having their child in the custody of the other parent, especially when they are not on good terms with each other and feel that the safety of their child is at risk with them.

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