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Justices: Woman who had co-worker committed not in contempt of court

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A Clark Circuit judge lacked statutory authority to find a nurse in indirect civil contempt for completing an application for emergency detention of her co-worker, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Sara Townsend and A.S. worked as nurses in a hospital in Louisville. Townsend completed the emergency detention application, alleging that A.S. was mentally ill and dangerous or gravely disabled, claiming that she threatened suicide. A warrant was issued and A.S. was detained for emergency treatment, but released the next day after doctors at the hospital determined there was no reason to continue keeping her.

Judge Daniel Moore ordered Townsend to appear to show cause why she shouldn’t be held in contempt for making false and inaccurate statements. She tried to have the issue dismissed, but Moore denied it and found her in indirect civil contempt. He ordered her to pay the hospital bill A.S. incurred, fined her $500, ordered her to pay $1,000 in A.S.’s attorney fees, and to write apology letters to A.S. and the treating hospital.

But Townsend’s conduct did not rise to meet indirect contempt pursuant to I.C. 34-47-3-2, the justices held in In re Mental Health Actions for A.S., Sara Townsend, 10S01-1402-MH-113.  

“The factual basis for the trial court’s finding of contempt was that Townsend made false statements in the application for emergency detention, and that those false statements were used as the basis for the warrant issued to detain A.S. But the plain import of the statutory language is that the contemptuous misconduct is in the resisting, hindering, or delaying in execution of an existing process or previously issued court order,” Justice Steven David wrote. “And here, as Townsend argues, there was no such lawful process or court order in place when she acted — rather, her actions initiated the lawful process or court order. It is axiomatic that she could not resist, hinder, or delay the execution of something that did not yet exist. Thus, the trial court acted outside of its statutory authority in finding Townsend in indirect contempt and its judgment to that effect is reversed.”

And without a basis to find the party in contempt, the trial court does not have the inherent power to impose sanctions.

The justices found Townsend’s role not much different than that of one who calls 911 to report a person on the street is acting dangerously.

“A trial court cannot simply otherwise hale a citizen into court and sanction him or her. The inherent power of the judiciary to impose sanctions, while flexible and significant, begins and ends with the courtroom and the judicial process. Thus, because we conclude that the trial court here lacked authority for its contempt finding, and because Townsend otherwise committed no misconduct once the legal proceedings were initiated, she is outside the trial court’s inherent power to impose sanctions,” David wrote.
 

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