Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Eleventh Circuit Discusses Contempt Fines for Violation of Consent Decree

A consent decree ordered the state prison system to remove state prisoners from a county jail within 30 days of the state's receipt of the conviction and sentencing transcript. In response to a contempt motion, the state said it could not comply because of overcrowding in its prison system, and sought modification of the decree. The district court concluded that compliance was possible and ordered the marshals to take the Comissioner or his designee into custody until the Department of Correction complied. (Counsel for the state was detained for a few hours; she volunteered to be the Commissioner's designee. The court holds the appeal moot on this issue.) The Department was to reimburse the county $23.00 a day for each inmate held in violation of the order. Further fines were directed, with the amount reserved for later decision.

A contempt finding and the imposition of a prospective fine is appealable as an order that "in effect, modifies an injunction." (1435 n. 3)

Although the court has held that motions to modify should be heard at the same time as contempt motions, the district court has discretion not to do so, and here, where the motion to modify was served two days before the contempt hearing and it was unclear whether everyone had been served, postponing the motion to modify was not reversible error.

The district court took too narrow an approach to the state's claim of inability to comply by focusing on the fact that the state transferred all the excess prisoners before the contempt hearing. At 1437: "'Inability,' as a defense to contempt, does not mean that compliance must be totally impossible. Instead, the inability that will absolve a party from being held in contempt requires only that the noncomplying party has made 'in good faith all reasonable efforts to comply' with the terms of a court order." At 1438: "The array of conflicting orders to which a party is subject is a material circumstance in a contempt proceeding." The orders in question are similar orders addressing state-ready backups in other county jails. "We do not interpret 'good faith' and 'reasonable efforts' to require necessarily that a party violate the order of one court to avoid violating the order of another court." At 1438 n. 11: The fact of being subject to competing court orders, without more, is not a defense to contempt. At 1438 n. 12: Prospective fines are an "extraordinary remedy" to be reserved for "flagrant violations" of an order. "Most important, never can the prospective fines operate to impose absolutely strict liability on the State." See: Chairs v. Burgess, 143 F.3d 1432 (11th Cir. 1998).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Chairs v. Burgess