Criminal Trial Process: Objections & Contempt of Court

Continued from: Opening Statements & Motions

Objections & Contempt of Court

Knowing how and when to make an objection during a criminal trial is a learned skill. If the defense attorney fails to make timely and specific objections during the case, the defendant may have grounds for appealing his or her conviction due to errors made. Once an attorney makes an objection, the judge can overrule or sustain the objection. Experienced attorneys should be prepared to cite case law to bolster the objection. There are several different types of objections during a criminal trial that include:

  • Admitted—The matter has already been stipulated to or admitted by counsel.
  • Argumentative—Counsel is arguing with the witness or purposely asks an argumentative question to get the witness to change their testimony.
  • Asked and Answered—This objection can be raised when the witness has already answered the question, but opposing counsel asks the question in a different way.
  • Assuming Facts Not in Evidence—Facts that have not been admitted into evidence cannot be used as the basis for a question unless the court allows it.
  • Best Evidence Rule—When physical evidence is available, witness testimony cannot act as a replacement for it. If the original documents were accidentally destroyed or lost, then the witness’s testimony may be admissible.
  • Beyond the Scope—During cross-examination, questions cannot be asked that were not raised upon direct examination.
  • Completeness—The attorney fails to introduce the entire recorded statement and only provides part of statement.
  • Compound Question—The attorney asks two or more separate questions within the framework of one single question.
  • Conclusion—A question that calls for the witness to make a conclusion, which is the job of the judge or jury.
  • Counsel is Testifying—Attorneys are required to ask questions of the witness and not offer testimony to the jury.
  • Form—Counsel objects to how the question was asked because it’s leading, misleading, repetitive or calls for speculation.
  • Foundation—There is no foundation to support the question.
  • Hearsay—A witness cannot testify as to what someone else said.
  • Improper Impeachment—Counsel attacks the witness’s credibility beyond the allowable grounds for impeachment.
  • Incompetent—The witness is incapable of understanding the court proceedings or has been deemed mentally incompetent.
  • Immaterial—An answer to the question would have no logical bearing on any issue in the case.
  • Irrelevant—The answer to a question would not make the existence of a fact more or less probable.
  • Lack of Personal Knowledge—The witness has no personal knowledge of the matter.
  • Leading—The attorney cannot construct a question in such a way to elicit a specific answer.
  • Misleading—Questions must be posed in a manner that is clear and specific so the witness knows what information the attorney is seeking.
  • Misstates Evidence—Intentionally distorts evidence or misquotes a witness.
  • Move to Strike—Either attorney can ask that a comment made by a witness be struck from the record because it’s prejudicial, inflammatory or inappropriate.  
  • Narrative—Witnesses are required to respond to questions in a concise manner and not give a long rambling explanation.
  • Non-Responsive—Applies when the witness does not directly answer the question.
  • Opinion—Expert witnesses are the only individuals qualified to give an opinion. Lay witness testimony can give an opinion about what they observed.
  • Privileged Communication—The defense can object if the question violates doctor-patient, husband-wife, attorney-client or priest-penitent privilege.
  • Speculative—Calls for the witness to guess or speculate as to what happened.

It is important for both sides to prepare witnesses on how to handle objections when they are raised. They should be instructed to listen to the question first, and then pause briefly before answering. If there is an objection before the court, the witness must wait until the judge makes a ruling.

Contempt of Court

The trial judge can find a person in contempt of court if they disrespect or insult the dignity or authority of the court. Judges typically have a wide discretion in deciding who can be held in contempt. It can include the attorneys, jurors, witnesses, court officers or observers. The person can be held in either civil or criminal contempt of court.

Civil Contempt of Court

Civil contempt occurs when the person in question interferes with the court’s ability to do their job. The judge may find the prosecutor in civil contempt if they fail to comply with a court order, such as turning over exculpatory evidence to the defense team. The guilty party may be fined or held in custody if they refuse to comply with a direct order.

Criminal Contempt of Court

Criminal contempt refers to behavior that occurs directly in the presence of the court. An example would be a reporter testifying who refuses to give up their source. The judge can hold them in contempt if they fail to answer the questions. The following behavior can result in a charge for criminal contempt of court:

  • Threatening the trial judge
  • Disobeying a direct order to produce evidence in the case
  • Refusing to testify as requested
  • Refusing to rise when the court orders it
  • Disrupting the court proceedings by acting out, yelling, swearing or making threats

The judge can impose a punishment immediately after finding the person in contempt.

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