Jones v. Helms, 80-850

Decision Date15 June 1981
Docket NumberNo. 80-850,80-850
Citation101 S.Ct. 2434,69 L.Ed.2d 118,452 U.S. 412
PartiesElie JONES, Warden, Stone Mountain Correctional Institution, Appellant, v. Bobby H. HELMS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Under a Georgia statute, a parent who willfully and voluntarily abandons his or her dependent child is guilty of a misdemeanor, and those parents who commit that offense within Georgia and thereafter leave the State are guilty of a felony. Appellee pleaded guilty in a Georgia state court to the felony of abandoning his child and leaving the State, thereby formally admitting that he had willfully and voluntarily abandoned his child, leaving her in a dependent condition, before he left the State. Appellee received a prison sentence and, after exhausting state remedies, filed a petition for habeas corpus in Federal District Court. He claimed that the Georgia statute, by providing for enhanced punishment for parents who left Georgia after abandoning their children, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Art. IV, § 2, of the Constitution. The District Court denied relief, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

Held:

1. The Georgia statute does not impermissibly infringe upon the constitutionally protected right to travel. Appellee's guilty plea was an acknowledgment that he had committed a misdemeanor before he initially left Georgia, and his criminal conduct within Georgia necessarily qualified his right thereafter freely to travel interstate. Although a simple penalty for leaving a State is impermissible, if departure aggravates the consequences of conduct that is otherwise punishable, the State may treat the entire sequence of events, from the initial offense to departure from the State, as more serious than its separate components. Appellee has provided no basis for questioning the validity of the legislative judgment that the legitimate purpose of causing parents to support their children is served by making abandonment within the State followed by departure a more serious offense than mere abandonment within the State. Pp. 417-423.

2. Nor does the Georgia statute violate the Equal Protection Clause. The portion of the statute at issue applies equally to all parents residing in Georgia, and appellee has not shown that it has been arbitrarily or discriminatorily applied. It is not necessary to consider whether the State has available less restrictive means to serve the legitimate pur- poses furthered by the felony provision of the statute. The statute does not infringe upon appellee's fundamental rights, and in this context the State need not employ the least restrictive, or even the most effective or wisest, means to achieve its legitimate ends. Similarly, it need not be determined whether the statute is unnecessarily broad on the ground that it does not require that the act of leaving the State—as well as the act of abandonment—be motivated by a wrongful intent. This is a matter relating to the wisdom of the legislation, and it raises no question with respect to the uniform and impartial character of the State's law. Pp. 2442-2443.

5 Cir., 621 F.2d 211, reversed.

Carol Atha Cosgrove, Atlanta, Ga., for appellant.

James C. Bonner, Jr., Decatur, Ga., for appellee.

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Georgia, a parent who willfully and voluntarily abandons his or her dependent child is guilty of a misdemeanor. Those parents who commit that offense within Georgia and thereafter leave the State are guilty of a felony. The question presented by this appeal is whether this statutory classification violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.1

As the case comes to us, the critical facts are not in dispute. In 1976, appellee pleaded guilty in Georgia to the felony of abandoning his child and leaving the State.2 By that plea, appellee formally admitted that he had willfully and voluntarily abandoned his daughter, leaving her in a dependent condition, before he left the State of Georgia.3 He received a 3-year prison sentence which he began to serve in 1978.4

After exhausting his state remedies,5 appellee filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. He claimed that § 74-9902, by providing for enhanced punishment of those parents who left Georgia after abandoning their children, violated the Equal Protection Clause and the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Art. IV, § 2. See App. 22-23. The District Court denied relief, see id., at 28-29, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. See 621 F.2d 211 (1980).6

The Court of Appeals held that the statute should be subjected to strict scrutiny because it infringed the fundamental right to travel.7 Applying strict-scrutiny analysis, the court concluded that the state interests served by the statute, although legitimate, could be adequately protected by less drastic means; the statute therefore was invalid.8 In the judgment of the Court of Appeals, the State's interest in extraditing offending parents, as well as its interest in requiring parents to support their children, was adequately served by the remedies provided in the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (URESA), a version of which had been enacted in Georgia. See Ga.Code § 99-901a et seq. (1978 anl Supp.1980).9 Moreover, because the Court of Appeals understood the statute not to require any proof of criminal intent, it considered this feature a further indication of the statute's unconstitutional overbreadth.10

The Warden appealed, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 449 U.S. 1122, 101 S.Ct. 937, 67 L.Ed.2d 108. In an opinion issued several months prior to the Court of Appeals' decision, the Georgia Supreme Court had upheld the felony provision of § 74-9902 against an almost identical constitutional challenge. See Garren v. State, 245 Ga. 323, 264 S.E.2d 876 (1980). We now resolve this conflict between the Georgia Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals by reversing the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

I

The Court of Appeals' conclusion that § 74-9902 is constitutionally invalid rests entirely on the premise that the statute impairs the fundamental right of every Georgia resident to travel from Georgia to another State.11 It is, of course, well settled that the right of a United States citizen to travel from one State to another and to take up residence in the State of his choice is protected by the Federal Constitution. Although the textual source of this right has been the subject of debate, its fundamental nature has consistently been recognized by this Court. See Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618, 629-631, 89 S.Ct. 1322, 1328-1330, 22 L.Ed.2d 600; United States v. Guest, 383 U.S. 745, 757-759, 86 S.Ct. 1170, 1177-1179, 16 L.Ed.2d 239. The right to travel has been described as a privilege of national citizenship,12 and as an aspect of liberty that is protected by the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.13 Whatever its source, a State may neither tax nor penalize a citizen for exercising his right to leave one State and enter another.

Despite the fundamental nature of this right, there nonetheless are situations in which a State may prevent a citizen from leaving. Most obvious is the case in which a person has been convicted of a crime within a State. He may be detained within that State, and returned to it if he is found in another State. Indeed, even before trial or conviction, probable cause may justify an arrest and subsequent temporary detention. Similarly, a person who commits a crime in a State and leaves the State before arrest or conviction may be extradited following "a summary and mandatory executive proceeding." 14 Manifestly, a person who has committed an offense against the laws of Georgia may be stopped at its borders and temporarily deprived of his freedom to travel elsewhere within or without the State.15

In this case, appellee's guilty plea plea was an acknowledgment that he had committed a misdemeanor before he initially left Georgia for Alabama. Upon conviction of that misdemeanor, he was subject to imprisonment for a period of up to one year.16 Therefore, although he was not convicted of abandonment until after his first trip to Alabama, appellee's own misconduct had qualified his right to travel interstate before he sought to exercise that right. We are aware of nothing in our prior cases or in the language of the Federal Constitution that suggests that a person who has committed an offense punishable by imprisonment has an unqualified federal right to leave the jurisdiction prior to arrest or conviction.

This case differs in a significant respect from prior cases involving the validity of state enactments that were said to penalize the exercise of the constitutional right to travel. In the first decision squarely to recognize the right to travel, Crandall v. Nevada, 6 Wall. 35, 18 L.Ed. 744, the Court held that a State may not impose a tax on residents who desire to leave the State, nor on nonresidents merely passing through. In Edwards v. California, 314 U.S. 160, 62 S.Ct. 164, 86 L.Ed. 119, the Court held that a State may not make it a crime to bring a nonresident indigent person into the State. In more recent decisions, the Court has examined state statutes imposing durational residence requirements that deprived new residents of rights or benefits available to old residents, to determine whether such requirements penalized citizens for exercising their constitutional right to travel.17 In all of those cases, the statute at issue imposed a burden on the exercise of the right to travel by citizens whose right to travel had not been qualified in any way. In contrast, in this case, appellee's criminal conduct within the State of Georgia necessarily qualified his right thereafter freely to travel interstate. Appellee's claim is therefore on a...

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