This is archived content from the U.S. Department of Justice website. The information here may be outdated and links may no longer function. Please contact if you have any questions about the archive site.

757. Tests for Distinguishing Between Civil and Criminal Contempt—Purging

Because the primary aim of a criminal contempt action is vindication of the authority of the court and punishment for disobedience already accomplished, the general rule is that purging of contempt is not a complete defense in a criminal contempt action. Consequently, a person found guilty of criminal contempt may be sentenced to a fixed and definite term of imprisonment, or be required to pay an unconditional fine. See United States v. Shipp, 203 U.S. 563 (1906); Skinner v. White, 505 F.2d 685, 689 (5th Cir. 1974).

In a civil contempt action, the issue of purging is determined by whether the action is coercive or compensatory in nature. A "coercive civil" contempt action is one wherein the principal object is respondent's compliance with the court decree. This is to be contrasted with a "compensatory civil" contempt action wherein the principal object is the receipt of an award or compensation. The contemnor in a coercive civil contempt action possesses the "keys to his own cell" since he may not be sentenced to a fixed or definite term of imprisonment or subjected to an unconditional fine. See Penfield Co. v. SEC, 330 U.S. 585, 595 (1947); Gompers v. Bucks Stove and Range Co., 221 U.S. 418, 441-42 (1911); Duell v. Duell, 178 F.2d 683, 685 (D.C.Cir. 1949); Parker v. United States, 153 F.2d 66, 70 (1st Cir. 1946). An unconditional award or fine may, however, be imposed in a compensatory civil contempt action. See McComb v. Jacksonville Paper Co., 336 U.S. 187, 191 (1949); United States v. United Mine Workers of America, 330 U.S. 258, 303-04 (1947); Backo v. Local 281, United Brothers of Carpenters and Joiners, 438 F.2d 176, 182 (2d Cir. 1970), cert. denied, 404 U.S. 858 (1971).

[cited in Criminal Resource Manual 772; JM 9-39.000]

Updated January 21, 2020