Tommy Gregory Thompson is a former deep-sea treasure hunter and is about to mark his fifth year in jail for contempt of court for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of 500 missing coins made from gold found in an historic shipwreck. The normal maximum to hold someone is 18 months, so we are well past that.

Can the courts hold someone indefinitely for contempt of court? When would this situation be considered 'cruel and unusual' punishment?

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    dosn't he also rack up 1000 USD per day, and owes the state a million every 3 years?
    – Trish
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 20:09
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    @Trish is that relevant? I believe debtor prisons have been outlawed. You can be imprisoned for failing to pay money to the state if you owe it and you have it. But you can't be imprisoned for failing to pay it because you are unable to pay.
    – grovkin
    Commented Feb 9, 2021 at 14:13
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    @grovkin it doesn't matter that he can't pay it, it matters that if he ever told, he still would owe the government lots and lots of money for contempt of court.
    – Trish
    Commented Feb 9, 2021 at 15:17
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    @grovkin, No, they were never abolished in the United States, where non-payment of child support, fines, or back taxes can land you jail time, whether you have the money stashed away or not.
    – PatrickT
    Commented Feb 10, 2021 at 2:21
  • H. Beatty Chadwick spent 14 years in jail for civil contempt, in Pennsylvania.
    – benrg
    Commented Feb 10, 2021 at 5:41

1 Answer 1


Can the courts hold someone indefinitely for contempt of court?

Yes. This is civil contempt which is imposed to compel compliance with a court order that the disobedient person has the ability to comply with, rather than criminal contempt which is limited to a set time period to punish disrespect for the Court in an instance that is over and complete.

Often, it is eventually vacated on the grounds of futility (i.e. it is clear that further incarceration will not secure compliance) or mootness (e.g. when a witness refuses to testify in a trial and then the trial is completed). In the case of government officials who refuse to comply to an order directed to them in an official capacity, the government official can be released forthwith by resigning from their official post.

Long periods of detention for civil contempt are most common for cases like this where someone refuses to provide the location of something of great value, or in asset protection trust type cases involving millions of dollars worth of assets where the detained person refuses to disclose hidden assets or to take the steps necessary to cause them to be turned over to a creditor or ex-spouse, and the Court has determined that the person detained is capable of doing so. Less often, it is done for quite a long time in cases involving national security secrets.

Persons held in civil contempt also have fewer due process protections than persons charged with indirect criminal contempt which is just a procedurally unusual form of crime (direct criminal contempt is even more procedurally unusual and involves less due process, the person held in direct criminal contempt can be jailed or fined for a set period of time summarily by a judge without a hearing for disrespectful conduct in the judge's physical presence with only a brief few seconds opportunity to speak up for himself or herself without a right to counsel in response before being punished).

When would this situation be considered 'cruel and unusual' punishment?

No. Cruel and unusual punishment applies to punishment for wrongdoing. Civil contempt isn't designed to punish wrongdoing. It is calculated to secure compliance going forward with a lawful court order with which the person incarcerated has the ability to comply.

In a case of civil contempt, a fundamental principle is that the person detained, who has refused to comply with a court order that the person has the ability to comply with and does so without lawful justification, "holds the key to the jail" and can be released forthwith upon complying with the Court's order at any time.

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    Mr. Thompson could at any moment end being held if he just told what the court wants to know. He could, at 2 AM in the morning, have a judge called! at least in theory. Practically, he'd get to "see" the judge at the earliest available moment.
    – Trish
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 20:04
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    Are there any Fifth Amendment implications? It seems strange that someone can be held until they reveal some information, as they are effectively being coerced into providing information by being detained. Perhaps the location of the gold is not strictly self-incriminatory in this case, though. Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 20:11
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    in many cases, the disclosure also is necessary part of a deal with the state: you tell us X, we don't do Y. Because he doesn't disclose, he is held in contempt.
    – Trish
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 20:23
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    H. Beatty Chadwick spent 14 years behind bars in Pennsylvania for a similar "contempt of court" problem. That's believed to be the all-time record in the United States, at least. abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=8101209&page=1
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Feb 9, 2021 at 3:58
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    @ohwilleke If the court wasn't already firmly convinced (way beyond the mere preponderance standard that an adverse inference would overcome) that he had this information, he could not be held in contempt for not revealing it. In this particular case, Thompson already invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege and a court held that the information was not requested for any testimonial purpose in any conceivable criminal case and thus his right against self-incrimination was not implicated. Commented Feb 9, 2021 at 10:28

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