Premature Incarceration

In this habeas corpus proceeding, Charles Miller challenged the trial court’s decision to incarcerate him for contempt.  Mr. Miller had failed to produce certain documents required by court order, leading to the contempt finding and his confinement.  Specifically, the trial court found Miller guilty of constructive contempt, which is contemptuous conduct outside the presence of the court.  Miller argued that he was not given proper notice of the contempt charge, and the Court of Appeals agreed, because in cases involving conduct outside the presence of the court, “due process requires that the alleged contemnor receive full and unambiguous notification of the accusation of any contempt and a reasonable opportunity to defend the charges or explain the conduct.”  Because Miller was not afforded that opportunity, the Court granted him habeas corpus relief.

In re Miller

On Debtor’s Prison

A habeas corpus case arising out of an underlying divorce proceeding helps to illustrate the limits of a court’s authority to imprison a litigant for contempt. The trial court ordered the wife to pay her former husband $40,000 secured by a lien on a residence awarded to her in the divorce, to be paid six months after the decree. After that date came and went without payment, the husband moved for contempt, and the trial court sentenced her to confinement in the Hunt County jail until she tendered payment. The Court of Appeals ordered her to be released, citing the Texas Constitution’s provision that “No person shall ever be imprisoned for debt.” Tex. Const. art I, §18. Although the trial court could have jailed the wife for failing to comply with a court order to turn over specified property or funds (e.g., “the $40,000 in Wife’s savings account”), that authority did not extend to the failure to pay a pure debt to the other spouse. The Court therefore granted habeas corpus and ordered that the wife be unconditionally released.

In re Kinney, No. 05-14-00159-CV