Criminal Contempt

Learn how judges may handle issues like disruption and disobedience.

“You’re in contempt!” the TV judge yells at the fictitious target. But what does contempt really mean?

There are two kinds of contempt: civil and criminal. This article focuses on criminal contempt—the kind designed to punish with jail time or a fine. Behavior during both civil and criminal proceedings can give rise to a criminal contempt charge.

Don’t Mess With the Court

When people intentionally behave in a way that embarrasses judges or prevents them from doing their jobs, criminal contempt charges may follow.

Direct and Indirect

Criminal contempt can be direct or indirect. Direct contempt is typically behavior that happens during court and interrupts the proceeding. The behavior generally needs to be extreme to result in direct contempt—for example, a defendant shouting profanities at the judge during a hearing. A defendant muttering an obscenity during a hearing, on the other hand, may not show direct criminal contempt. (Davila v. State, 100 So.3d 262 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2012).)

Behavior that may result in indirect or constructive contempt doesn’t usually happen in court, but instead when someone deliberately disobeys a court order or judgment. If someone chooses to defy a court order that requires her to appear at a hearing, she may face charges for indirect criminal contempt.  Evidence  from outside sources, such as mailing dates on pleadings and third-party testimony, often serves as proof for an indirect contempt charge. (Such evidence typically isn’t as important where direct contempt is involved, as the judge is usually witness to all the relevant facts.) (Bank of N.Y. v. Moorings at Edgewater, 79 So.3d 164 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2012).)

Indirect criminal contempt may occasionally arise in other scenarios, too. For instance, in a 2014 Illinois case, an appeals court overturned the conviction of a woman who cursed in frustration just outside the courtroom. (People v. Perez, 2014 IL App (3d) 120978.) The theory was that the woman had been "disrespectful to the court's authority." (For more on the case, see  Jail Time for Cursing in the Courthouse?)

Statutory Law on Contempt

Federal and state statutes give rise to different tests for contempt. New York, for example, has a statute that says its courts may punish a person for criminal contempt for acts that include:

  • disorderly behavior committed during court that interrupts proceedings or impairs the respect of authority
  • noise or disturbance that interrupts proceedings
  • deliberate disobedience or resistance to a court order or mandate, or
  • publishing a false report of the proceedings.

An operative issue under this statute is whether the person willfully disobeyed “a clear and unequivocal court mandate.” (N.Y. Jud. Law § 750;  Wheels Amer. N.Y., Ltd. v. Montalvo, 50 A.D.3d 1130 (N.Y. App. Div. 2008).)

There’s a federal criminal contempt statute saying federal courts can punish misbehavior in their presence or near them that obstructs the administration of justice. For this section, courts consider whether four  elements  are present:

  • misbehavior
  • “in or near to the presence of the Court”
  • that “obstructs the administration of justice,” and
  • that the defendant commits “with the required degree of criminal intent.”

(18 U.S.C. § 401;  In re Grogan, 972 F.Supp. 992 (E.D. Va. 1997).)

The federal statute also lists disobedience or resistance to court orders or commands as contemptuous. Under appropriate facts, courts look at whether the defendant  willfully  violated a reasonably specific order. (18 U.S.C. § 401;  U.S. v. Bernardine, 237 F.3d 1279 (11th Cir. 2001).)

Punishment

Because the purpose is punishment, a person facing a criminal contempt charge is generally entitled to similar  protections  as other criminal defendants. So, whatever the test may be, the government must establish the elements of criminal contempt beyond a reasonable doubt. That said, there may be procedural differences from other cases. For instance, courts may be able to issue both a finding of direct contempt and punishment for it on the spot, without the normal due process protections. (See People v. L.A.S., 111 Ill. 2d 539 (1986).)

Statutes also specify punishment parameters for criminal contempt. Texas, for example, says that, for a justice or municipal court proceeding, the punishment for contempt can’t exceed a $100 fine or three days in jail, or both. For a court other than a justice or municipal court, such as a family court, the maximum fine is $500 or six months in jail, or both. (Tex. Stat. Ann. § 21.002.)

Contact an Attorney

Criminal contempt laws vary from state to state, and the ways courts handle it can vary from court to court. A qualified criminal defense attorney, particularly one who is familiar with the court system you’re in, can explain the law as it applies to you and protect your rights.

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