York judge wrongly held indigent Hanover mom in contempt of court, appeals court finds

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Jenna Elizabeth Sneeringer

A York County judge erred when he held a cash-strapped Hanover mother in contempt of court and ordered her locked up for failing to pay $800 on her criminal fine and court costs, the state Superior Court has ruled.

"This is one of a number of what are called modern debtors' prison cases," said Andrew Christy, criminal justice and poverty attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Across Pennsylvania, some defendants who aren't paying their court costs and fines because they are indigent are being held in contempt and jailed "without any real regard for their current financial situation or what the law requires," he said.

In the past few years, the ACLU has seen it happen in counties including Berks, Lebanon, Cambria and Allegheny — and now in York County, according to Christy, both in common pleas and magisterial district courts.

"Every week, there are more cases," he said. "Courts have completely disregarded what the law requires. ... In reality, only the poorest Pennsylvanians are going to jail for this."

The state Superior Court on Monday vacated the Aug. 13 contempt order issued by York County Common Pleas Judge Harry M. Ness against Jenna Elizabeth Sneeringer, according to court records.

York County Common Pleas Judge Harry M. Ness

Ness vacated his own contempt order on Aug. 14, court records show, but by that time the case had already been appealed. Court records indicate he no longer had jurisdiction over the matter because it had been appealed, although Sneeringer was released from prison that day.

Ness did not return a phone message seeking comment on Monday.

The background: Sneeringer, 29, pleaded guilty in September 2017 to driving under the influence of a controlled substance and a month later was sentenced to six months of probation, fined $1,000 and ordered to pay court costs.

On April 25, 2019, she was found to have violated her probation conditions, according to court records. Ness sentenced Sneeringer to six more months of probation, ordered her re-released and directed she pay $800 within 48 hours of her release, records state. But Sneeringer did not pay.

Ness scheduled a hearing for May 29 to determine why Sneeringer shouldn't be held in contempt, but Sneeringer failed to attend and Ness issued a bench warrant for her arrest, according to court records.

After being arrested, Sneeringer again appeared before Ness on Aug. 13, telling the judge she had received an eviction notice and "didn't know what to do."

Court records show Ness asked, "Do you have the $800 now?" That prompted Sneeringer to tell him she would have it on Aug. 23.

"When you get it and pay (the $800), we'll release you," Ness told her, then ordered her remanded to York County Prison "until she pays the $800 she promised to pay the last time."

Ness imposed no time limit on Sneeringer's contempt incarceration, according to the state Superior Court.

The appeal: The next day, Aug. 14, appellate attorney Brian McNeil of the York County Public Defender's Office appealed to the state Superior Court and in York County Court on Sneeringer's behalf, including seeking an emergency stay. About an hour later, Ness withdrew the contempt citation.

The Superior Court, in ruling on the appeal, noted that defendants who are indigent are entitled to legal counsel. Sneeringer was already represented by public defenders Ashley Keefer and Hollianne Snyder, but Ness failed to ask whether Sneeringer was represented, which he was required to do, according to the appeals court.

The public defender's office maintains Keefer showed up to Ness' courtroom about 15 minutes early, but by that time Sneeringer had already been found in contempt and removed. A court filing from the York County District Attorney's Office claimed Keefer was late.

The Superior Court's memorandum notes that Ness had a responsibility to inquire about Sneeringer's current financial situation, to see if it had changed since she was last in court.

By failing to ask about her reasons for not paying, Ness unlawfully held Sneeringer in contempt, according to the Superior Court, which wrote:

"The United States Supreme Court has made it clear that, 'if the State determines a fine or restitution to be the appropriate and adequate penalty for the crime, it may not thereafter imprison a person solely because (s)he lacked the resources to pay for it.'" 

The state Superior Court also quoted the U.S. Supreme Court as saying, "(A) court may not constitutionally imprison someone for nonpayment of court costs and fines alone. Instead, it must be proved that the person has willfully refused to pay the fine or restitution where he has the means to pay."

'Stop blowing smoke': Sneeringer on Aug. 14 signed a declaration of facts about herself, declaring herself indigent and saying that since being evicted, she and her three young children now live with her mother in Hanover.

It also notes she is a home health aide who works part time, makes $10 per hour, receives food stamps and is on Medicaid.

"Because of my incarceration, my job is currently on hold and may be lost," according to the declaration. "Judge Ness did not allow me to say anything other than that I now have a job and instructed me to 'stop blowing smoke up his robes.'"

Sneeringer noted that her three children are ages 7, 6 and 20 months, that the baby's father "is not in the picture" and that the father of the older two was murdered, according to the declaration, which states Sneeringer's mother helps watch the children.

"I cannot afford child care," Sneeringer noted. "My middle son is disabled. ... He needs significant care."

No debtors' prison: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that defendants can't be locked up because they can't afford to pay on court cases, according to the ACLU's Christy.

But there's been an uptick in that happening anyway, he said, and called Sneeringer's case egregious.

"Courts have completely disregarded what the law requires. ... The focus is trying to squeeze as much money out of impoverished Pennsylvanians as possible," he said. "I just hope that increased public attention to these cases will help educate the public that there's a problem that needs to be addressed."

Christy said plenty of judges follow laws regarding dealing with indigent defendants, "which is why it's so frustrating when you see what happened in this case, because it was completely unnecessary."

He praised the York County Public Defender's Office's quick response.

"This case could have flown under the radar if the public defender's office was not as diligent as it is," Christy said. "I think it's a real credit to the public defender's office that they jumped on this and got the woman out the next day."

McNeil, the York County public defender who crafted Sneeringer's appeal, said his office is very happy with the Superior Court's ruling.

"If someone is too poor to pay, they should not be thrown in jail for being poor," McNeil told The York Dispatch. "If you are willfully refusing to pay, that's a whole different animal."

Escape case: Sneeringer has several active cases in York County Court, including three cases of possessing a controlled substance and one case in which she's charged with escape and felony aggravated assault.

According to court documents in that case, Sneeringer was taken into custody by state Constable Nick Freeze on Sept. 20. While in his car, she convinced him to crack the back passenger window, Springettsbury Township Police allege.

She forced the window down the rest of the way, jumped from Freeze's car and fled, police allege. It happened not far from York County Prison.

Freeze chased Sneeringer down an embankment, where Sneeringer tried to poke or stab him with sticks and also tried to bite him, court documents allege.

Freeze was able to get her back into custody after punching her several times, police said.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.