485 U.S. 624 (1988), 86-787, Hicks v. Feiock

Docket Nº:No. 86-787
Citation:485 U.S. 624, 108 S.Ct. 1423, 99 L.Ed.2d 721, 56 U.S.L.W. 4347
Party Name:Hicks v. Feiock
Case Date:April 27, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 624

485 U.S. 624 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 1423, 99 L.Ed.2d 721, 56 U.S.L.W. 4347




No. 86-787

United States Supreme Court

April 27, 1988

Argued December 1, 1987




After respondent stopped making $150 monthly child support payments to his ex-wife under a California state court order, he was served with an order to show cause why he should not be held in contempt on nine counts of failure to make the payments. At the contempt hearing, his defense that he was financially unable to make payments was partially successful, but he was adjudged in contempt on five counts; was sentenced to a 5-day jail term on each count, to be served consecutively; and was placed on probation for three years upon suspension of the sentence. As conditions of his probation, he was ordered to resume the monthly payments and to begin repaying $50 per month on his accumulated arrearages. During the contempt hearing, the court rejected his contention that the application against him of Cal.Civ.Proc.Ann. § 1209.5 (West 1982), governing the prima facie showing of contempt of a court order to make child support payments, was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause because it shifts to the defendant the burden of proof as to ability to comply with the order, which is an element of the crime of contempt. The California Court of Appeal annulled the contempt order, ruling that § 1209.5 purports to impose "a mandatory presumption compelling a conclusion of guilt without independent proof of an ability to pay," and is therefore unconstitutional because "the mandatory nature of the presumption lessens the prosecution's burden of proof." The court went on to state that, for future guidance, however, the statute should be construed as authorizing a permissive inference, not a mandatory presumption. The California Supreme Court denied review.


1. With regard to the determination of issues necessary to decide this case, the state appellate court ruled that whether the individual is able to comply with a court order is an element of the offense of contempt, rather than an affirmative defense to the charge, and that § 1209.5 shifts to the alleged contemnor the burden of persuasion, rather than simply the burden of production in showing inability to comply. Since the California Supreme Court denied review, this Court is not free to overturn the

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state appellate court's conclusions as to these state law issues. However, the issue whether the contempt proceeding and the relief given were properly characterized [108 S.Ct. 1426] as civil or criminal in nature, for purposes of determining the proper applicability of federal constitutional protections, raises a question of federal law, rather than state law. Thus, the state appellate court erred insofar as it sustained respondent's challenge to § 1209.5 under the Due Process Clause simply because it concluded that the contempt proceeding was "quasi-criminal" as a matter of California law. Pp. 629-630.

2. For the purposes of applying the Due Process Clause to a State's proceedings, state law provides strong guidance, but is not dispositive, as to the classification of the proceeding or the relief imposed as civil or criminal. The critical features are the substance of the proceeding and the character of the relief that the proceeding will afford. With regard to contempt cases, the proceeding and remedy are for civil contempt if the punishment is remedial, and for the complainant's benefit. But if for criminal contempt, the sentence is punitive, to vindicate the court's authority. Thus, if the relief provided is a sentence of imprisonment, it is remedial if the defendant stands committed unless and until he performs the affirmative act required by the court's order, and is punitive if the sentence is limited to unconditional imprisonment for a definite period. If the relief provided is a fine, it is remedial when it is paid to the complainant, and punitive when it is paid to the court, though a fine that is payable to the court is also remedial when the defendant can avoid paying the fine simply by performing the act required by the court's order. These distinctions lead to the fundamental proposition that criminal penalties may not be imposed on someone who has not been afforded the protections that the Constitution requires of criminal proceedings, including the requirement that the offense be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Pp. 631-635.

3. Although the underlying purposes of particular kinds of relief are germane, they are not controlling in determining the classification of the relief imposed in a State's proceedings. In contempt cases, both civil and criminal relief have aspects that can be seen as either remedial or punitive, or both. If classification were to be hinged on the overlapping purposes of civil and criminal contempt proceedings, the States will be unable to ascertain with any degree of assurance how their proceedings will be understood as a matter of federal law, thus creating novel and complex problems. Pp. 635-637.

4. In respondent's contempt proceeding, § 1209.5's burden of persuasion requirement (as interpreted by the state court), if applied in a criminal proceeding, would violate the Due Process Clause because it would undercut the State's burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

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If applied in a civil proceeding, however, this particular statute would be constitutionally valid. There were strong indications that the proceeding was intended to be criminal in nature, such as the notice sent to respondent, which labeled the proceeding as "criminal in nature," and the District Attorney's participation in the case. However, if the trial court imposed only civil coercive remedies, it would be improper to invalidate that result merely because the Due Process Clause was not satisfied. The relief afforded -- respondent's jail sentence, its suspension, and his fixed term of probation -- would be criminal in nature if that were all. However, the trial court did not specify whether payment of the arrearages (which, if timely made, would be completed before expiration of the probation period) would have purged respondent's determinate sentence, thus making the relief civil in nature. Since the state appellate court, because of its erroneous views as to these controlling principles of federal law, did not pass on this issue, it must be determined by that court on remand for its further consideration of § 1209.5. Pp. 637-641.

180 Cal.App.3d 649, 225 Cal.Rptr. 748, vacated and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, [108 S.Ct. 1427] MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA, J., joined. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

A parent failed to comply with a valid court order to make child support payments, and defended against subsequent contempt charges by claiming that he was financially unable

Page 627

to make the required payments. The trial court ruled that, under state law, he is presumed to remain able to comply with the terms of the prior order, and judged him to be in contempt. The state appellate court held that the legislative presumptions applied by the trial court violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids a court to employ certain presumptions that affect the determination of guilt or innocence in criminal proceedings. We must decide whether the Due Process Clause was properly applied in this case.


On January 19, 1976, a California state court entered an order requiring respondent, Phillip Feiock, to begin making monthly payments to his ex-wife for the support of their three children. Over the next six years, respondent only sporadically complied with the order, and by December, 1982, he had discontinued paying child support altogether. His ex-wife sought to enforce the support orders. On June 22, 1984, a hearing was held in California state court on her petition for ongoing support payments and for payment of the arrearage due her. The court examined respondent's financial situation and ordered him to begin paying $150 per month commencing on July 1, 1984. The court reserved jurisdiction over the matter for the purpose of determining the arrearages and reviewing respondent's financial condition.

Respondent apparently made two monthly payments, but paid nothing for the next nine months. He was then served with an order to show cause why he should not be held in contempt on nine counts of failure to make the monthly payments ordered by the court. At a hearing on August 9, 1985, petitioner made out a prima facie case of contempt against respondent by establishing the existence of a valid court order, respondent's knowledge of the order, and respondent's failure to comply with the order. Respondent defended by arguing that he was unable to pay support during

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the months in question. This argument was partially successful, but respondent was adjudged to be in contempt on five of the nine counts. He was sentenced to 5 days in jail on each count, to be served consecutively, for a total of 25 days. This sentence was suspended, however, and respondent was placed on probation for three years. As one of the conditions of his probation, he was ordered once again to make support payments of $150 per month. As another condition of his probation, he was ordered, starting the following month, to begin repaying $50 per month on his accumulated arrearage, which was determined to total $1,650.

At the hearing, respondent had objected to the application of Cal.Civ.Proc.Code Ann. § 1209.5 (West 1982) against...

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