DENVER — Colorado couples go through about 22,000 divorces a year, most turning to the courts to settle all sorts of family, custody and financial matters.
In the ugliest of situations, one ex-partner can get the other ex-partner locked up.
Some local attorneys called it “no bail jail,” simple divorce disputes that result in hard time for clients who break the rules of an agreement.
The offending party is often arrested inside the family courtroom under a civil commitment MITT, handcuffed, sent to jail and cannot post bail.
There are plenty of procedural rules that are supposed to take place before that happens, but a FOX31 Problem Solvers investigation found a lack of consistency in what kinds of disagreements prompt incarceration.
Under Rule 107 of the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure, the jail time handed out by a magistrate judge is technically not even a conviction.
The sentenced party carries no criminal record even though they can spend days, weeks or months in county lockup.
Kirk Money is a city inspector and father of two school-aged children. He has no criminal record, but he does have a mugshot.
He was in an orange jumpsuit, sitting in general population for six days and nights at the Jefferson County jail as part of an “indirect punitive contempt” allegation.
Indirect means the alleged infraction occurred outside the purview of the judge or magistrate presiding over family court hearings.
Money said his problems started on July 4, 2016. According to divorce and court records, in even years, Money had that holiday with his children.
He said he took them on a short road trip to see his parents over the long weekend. There was a problem though.
The “order goes on to say if July 4th falls on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, it includes the weekend.” That holiday fell on a Monday.
As was her right, Money’s ex-wife asked Jefferson County magistrate Jason Carrithers to find Money in punitive contempt and put him in jail for violating the custody agreement.
And that’s what happened after a short hearing.
Carrithers, through a spokesman, declined to discuss the case.
“The Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judicial officers from speaking publicly about cases,” the spokesman said in a statement. “We understand your inquiry was more involved than just this one case, but Magistrate Carrithers respectfully declines your request for an interview.”
Money was released after about 144 hours in custody.
”I was without words,” he said. “I didn’t even know how to comprehend that. To face six days for an interpretation of the parenting plan?”
Money said jail was the real deal.
“They just handcuffed me,” he said. “Brought me down. Put me in booking. In booking, they strip you. Then they move you up to general population.”
Money’s friends made sure he didn’t lose his job while in jail and offered plenty of other support.
“I don’t know if the total experience has set in,” Money said. “I think still I’m in shock.”
According to the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline and the State Court Administrators Office, no state agency tracks how often judges toss someone in jail for punitive sanctions.
Often the only record is buried in courtroom transcripts.
Nine cases in Jefferson County were found last year by filtering through jail records and studying contempt of court files.
One of those cases was that of Colorado State Rep. Tim Leonard. He went to jail for two weeks after allegedly violating a magistrate`s order about educational decisions for his children.
“Speaking about my active post-divorce case will be of no benefit to my children, so I will respectfully decline your offer,” Leonard said in an email. “I will be interested in reading/seeing the results of your investigation. Good luck.”
Kathleen Hogan is a well-known Denver divorce attorney and family law scholar. She was not involved with the Money or Leonard cases, but she has dealt with civil contempt hearings for clients in the past.
“This really isn’t to fill our jails any more than they already are,” Hogan said. “Typically, the real goal is to get people, particularly in domestic relations proceedings, to do whatever it is they are supposed to do.”
Hogan said she hears concerns about judges and magistrates bearing too much power in civil cases, but in her experience, the courts are often stuck in an unwinnable, emotional fight.
“It makes people angry if they are on the receiving end of a contempt proceeding, but on the other hand, the vindictive ex’s or soon to be ex’s, sometimes, it makes them angry if they aren’t able to get the kind of punishment they thought they should,” Hogan said.
“For the most part, I think the judicial officers do the best they can to be pretty even handed and follow the rules.”
But Money can’t imagine there isn’t a different way to deal with divorce disputes, especially ones not related to financial matters such as alimony or child support.
“Is there a better forum to handle these disputes? Does it warrant someone going to jail and being treated like a criminal over an interpretation? I don’t believe it does,” Money said.
One of the leading law experts in Colorado on remedial and punitive sanctions for contempt is retired Denver judge Raymond Satter.
He said there have been plenty of Court of Appeals rulings that found fault in the way judges or magistrates used the civil contempt process to jail someone.
A document written as a guideline for other judges has been written by Satter that explains the process.