The public is widely familiar with the phrase "contempt of court" from high-profile legal disputes that grabbed headlines or the famous 1992 courtroom comedy, "My Cousin Vinny." Fewer will know exactly what the phrase means or what constitutes "criminal contempt of court" Contempt of court generally refers to conduct that disrespects the authority or dignity of a court or defies a lawful order of the court. The theory behind contempt of court and its enforcement recognizes that judges need to be able to curb actions viewed as detrimental to the court's ability to administer justice.
Contempt of Court: Criminal vs. Civil
Judges typically have a great amount of discretion in deciding whom to hold in contempt and the type of contempt. Those held in contempt can include parties to a proceeding, attorneys, witnesses, jurors, people in or around a proceeding, and officers or staff of the court itself. There are two types of contempt of court: criminal contempt of court and civil contempt.
Civil contempt often involves the failure of someone to comply with a court order. Judges use remedial sanctions to encourage such a person into complying with a court order that the person has violated.
On the other hand, charges of criminal contempt of court result in punitive sanctions. They serve to deter future acts of contempt by punishing the offender for disrupting the court's business or disrespecting the authority of the court. An apt description of the conduct that serve as a basis for contempt is found in Maine court rules:
"[D]isorderly conduct, insolent behavior, or a breach of peace, noise or other disturbance or action which actually obstructs or hinders the administration of justice or which diminishes the court's authority."
A person found in contempt of court is known as a "contemnor." Judges use different factors when deciding whether to hold someone in civil or criminal contempt, including the nature of the underlying court proceeding (criminal or civil) and the severity of the contemnor's behavior. Typically, just the threat of contempt penalties is sufficient to deter disruptive and disrespectful behavior.
Direct and Indirect Contempt
Contempt of court can take place either "directly" or "indirectly."
Direct contempt happens in the presence of the court. For example, someone could commit direct contempt by yelling at the judge in a way that impedes the court's ability to function and brings disrespect on the court.
Indirect contempt occurs outside the presence of the court. Examples include improperly communicating with jurors outside the court, refusing to turn over subpoenaed evidence and refusing to pay court ordered child support.
"Direct" contempt is more likely to lead to charges of criminal contempt.
Criminal Contempt of Court Charges
Criminal contempt charges become separate charges of criminal conduct, independent from the original matter in court. Unlike civil contempt sanctions, criminal contempt charges may live on after resolution of the underlying case.
One charged with criminal contempt generally gets the constitutional rights guaranteed to criminal defendants, including the right to counsel, right to put on a defense, and the right to a jury trial in certain cases. Charges of criminal contempt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, incarceration for contempt may begin immediately, before the contempt charge is adjudicated and the sentence decided. Depending on the jurisdiction and the case, the same judge who decided to charge a person with contempt may also end up presiding over the contempt proceedings. Criminal contempt can bring stiff punishments including jail time, fines, or both.
Criminal contempt of court refers to behavior which disobeys, offends or disrespects the authority or dignity of a court. It can occur directly, in the presence of the court, or indirectly when it happens outside the presence of the judge. Criminal contempt charges become separate charges from the underlying case. Adjudication of charges and punishment for criminal contempt may continue after resolution the underlying case.
Get Legal Assistance with Your Criminal Contempt of Court Case
One way to minimize the risk of a contempt of court charge is to have an attorney stand and speak for you. Additionally, an attorney's advice can help keep you in compliance with court orders or help argue on your behalf if a contempt charge is leveled at you. Contact a local criminal defense attorney today to get some peace of mind with your case.