Court reverses conviction in school attendance case

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled there was insufficient evidence to support a Pemiscot County woman's conviction for failing to ensure her child regularly attended school and ordered her acquittal.

The court, however, sidestepped Brenda Self's claim that the state law holding parents criminally liable if their children have a poor attendance record is unconstitutionally vague because it leaves it to individual school districts to determine how many absences constitute a violation.

During the 2002-2003 academic year, Self's daughter Jennifer, then 15, was absent 40 times over a period of 105 days from Caruthersville Accelerated Middle School. The matter was referred to the local prosecutor, who charged Self with a misdemeanor.

Following a brief trial in October 2003, Pemiscot County Associate Circuit Judge Byron Luber found Self guilty and sentenced her to 15 days in jail, which was suspended pending successful completion of probation.

The fact that the daughter was pregnant during the period in question, which accounted for her poor attendance, apparently wasn't mentioned at trial and didn't come to light until the high court heard Self's appeal in September. The attendance law doesn't apply if a student has a good medical reason for missing school.

No need for second ruling

In its 5-2 ruling, the court said the prosecution failed to prove Self "knowingly or purposely" failed to ensure her daughter's regular attendance under the circumstances. The majority opinion by Judge Laura Denvir Stith pointed out that a notation of "pregnant" appears on the daughter's official attendance record.

"These facts are sufficient to show that, to the satisfaction of the school authorities, Jennifer had been determined to be physically unable to attend school for the full time required and to have been given excused absences on those occasions on which she was ill or seeking medical care due to her pregnancy," Stith wrote.

Since the high court dispensed with the case on the facts of Self's particular situation, it determined there was no need to rule on the vagueness issue.

Judge William Ray Price Jr., joined by Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr., agreed with the majority on that point but dissented as to reversing the conviction. Since it was stipulated at trial that 17 of the 40 absences weren't excused, the dissenters said the circuit judge had ample evidence on which to find Self guilty.

"This Court has an obligation to affirm the circuit court, even where the results may seem harsh, where there is substantial evidence to support its judgment," Price wrote.

Because of the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy, the majority said Self couldn't be retried.

The case is State of Missouri v. Brenda Self.

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