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CRM 500-999

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]