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U.S. Supreme Court

Shillitani v. United States, 384 U.S. 364 (1966)

Shillitani v. United States

No. 412

Argued March 2, 1966

Decided June 6, 1966*

384 U.S. 364


Petitioners, having refused to testify before a grand jury under immunity granted by the respective District Courts under the Narcotic Control Act of 1956, were found guilty of contempt in proceedings under Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 42 (b). Each was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, with the proviso that he would be released sooner if and when he answered the questions. The Court of Appeals, construing the sentences as giving petitioners an unqualified right to release upon compliance with the orders to testify, rejected petitioners' constitutional objections that they were not indicted or given jury trials.


1. The character of these actions and their purpose to obtain answers to the questions for the grand jury rendered them civil contempt proceedings, for which indictment and jury trial are not constitutionally required. Pp. 36370.

2. Though courts have inherent power through civil contempt to enforce compliance with their lawful orders, the justification for coercive imprisonment as applied to such contempt depends upon the contemnor's ability to comply with the court's order. Where, as in these cases, the grand jury has been finally discharged, the contumacious witness cannot longer be confined, since he has no further opportunity to purge himself of contempt. Pp. 384 U. S. 370-372.

345 F.2d 290, 346 F.2d 5, vacated and remanded.

Page 384 U. S. 365

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