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United States v. Harris

September 23, 2009; as amended September 25, 2009


APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY (D.C. Crim. No. 03-cr-00354-001) District Judge: Honorable Jerome B. Simandle.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Barry, Circuit Judge


Argued: June 26, 2009

Before: BARRY, SMITH, Circuit Judges, and DuBOIS,*fn1 District Judge.


William Oscar Harris appeals from the District Court's denial of his motion to vacate an order of civil contempt that has been in effect for over five years. The order of contempt has its roots in an underlying criminal proceeding in which Harris was convicted of conspiracy and fraud and sentenced to 188 months' imprisonment. The clock on that 188-months, however, has yet to begin ticking: for the past five years, Harris has been incarcerated on the order of contempt that resulted from his refusal to comply with an order entered in the underlying proceeding. Because the Court structured the order of contempt so that it tolled the commencement of Harris's criminal sentence, only if and when the contempt is lifted will he begin serving that sentence. We will affirm.


Harris considers himself a member of the so-called AlMoroccan Empire, a group that believes the Uniform Commercial Code can be deployed to gain access to secret "straw man" bank accounts held by the United States Department of the Treasury; indeed, Harris considers himself to be a "Moorish sovereign being."*fn2 These claimed beliefs, and actions taken in reliance upon them by Harris and his cohorts, have come at a price: on May 6, 2003, he and various of those cohorts were indicted on a panoply of conspiracy and fraud counts arising from the production and distribution of fraudulent financial documents.

The events which ultimately led to this appeal began following the indictment. Harris and his co-conspirators sent out bogus financial documents that purported to create liens and judgments against the judges and prosecutors involved in the underlying prosecution. In response, the government moved for, and the District Court granted, a temporary restraining order (and eventually a permanent injunction) that prohibited Harris and his co-conspirators from continuing those activities.

Unfortunately, the restraining order and injunction did not have the desired effect, and the harassing activities continued unabated. As a result, the District Court held a show-cause hearing on April 13, 2004. Following this hearing, the Court held Harris and his co-conspirators in contempt, and ordered that they be incarcerated until such time as they agreed, in writing, to stop sending bogus liens and judgments. Granting a five-day grace period to allow for one last opportunity to comply, the Court ordered that Harris's contempt begin on April 27, 2004.*fn3 The Court later dropped the writing requirement, stating that it would lift the contempt if Harris simply "affirmatively ceased sending out new documents." (App. 163a.)

Trial in the underlying criminal proceeding began on June 7, 2004. On July 2, 2004, Harris was convicted on all counts of the indictment, and was subsequently sentenced to 188 months' imprisonment with that sentence to follow his confinement for civil contempt. He appealed, and we affirmed the judgment of sentence.

Harris has continued to send out bogus documents and, accordingly, has remained incarcerated for contempt for the entirety of the past five years. In November 2007, he filed a pro se motion that recycled his oft-rejected arguments about the jurisdiction of the federal courts, see supra note 1, a motion the District Court construed as one to terminate Harris's sentence for civil contempt -- and, as we characterize it for purposes of this Opinion, a motion to vacate the order of civil contempt. The Court gave careful consideration to each of Harris's arguments, and on February 20, 2008 denied the motion. We cannot overemphasize the fact, and fact it be, that throughout the proceedings before the District Court, the Court scrupulously avoided basing its finding of contempt on any conduct directed by Harris against it and at all times displayed extraordinary patience.

The District Court had jurisdiction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §§ 401 and 3231. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We review the Court's legal conclusions de novo, and will reverse "only where the decision is based on an error of law or a finding of fact that is clearly erroneous." Marshak v. Treadwell, - F.3d - (3d Cir. 2009).


It has long been recognized that courts possess the inherent authority to hold persons in contempt. See United States v. Hudson, 7 Cranch 32, 34 (1812) ("To fine for contempt - imprison for contumacy - inforce the observance of order . . . are powers which cannot be dispensed with in a Court, because they are necessary to the exercise of all others."); see also Int'l Union, United Mine Workers of Am. v. Bagwell, 512 U.S. 821, 831 (1994). There are two types of contempt, civil and criminal, and it is not always easy to distinguish between them: as the Supreme Court has observed, the distinction is "somewhat elusive." Bagwell, 512 U.S. at 830.

Civil contempt orders are intended to be coercive or compensatory in nature, and do not require, inter alia, a jury trial. Rather, civil contempt is imposed by the judge upon a finding that one has failed to comply with a valid court order. See United States v. Shillitani, 384 U.S. 364, 370-71 (1966) ("The conditional nature of the imprisonment -- based entirely upon the contemnor's continued defiance -- justifies holding civil contempt proceedings absent the safeguards of indictment and jury, provided that the usual due process requirements are met.") (internal citations and quotations omitted); Bagwell, 512 U.S. at 827 ("[C]ivil contempt sanctions, or those penalties designed to compel future compliance with a court order, are considered to be coercive and avoidable through obedience, and thus may be imposed in an ordinary civil proceeding upon notice and an opportunity to be heard. Neither a jury trial nor proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required.").

With civil contempt, the contemnor will be released subject to compliance with some condition. He is thus understood, in a bynow familiar observation, to "carr[y] the keys of his prison in his own pocket." Bagwell, 512 U.S. at 828 (internal citations and quotations omitted). At the same time, the civil contempt power is regarded as "uniquely . . . liable to abuse" because such "proceedings leave the offended judge solely responsible for identifying, prosecuting, adjudicating, and sanctioning the contumacious conduct." Id. at 831 (internal citations and quotations omitted).

Criminal contempt, on the other hand, is punitive in nature -- it punishes for some past contumacious act. A person subject to criminal contempt is entitled to greater procedural protections than a person subject to civil contempt: most importantly, the purported contemnor has a ...

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