Criminal Contempt of Court

The public is widely familiar with the phrase "contempt of court" from high-profile legal disputes grabbing headlines. Or maybe from 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 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
  • Officers or staff of the court itself

There are two types of contempt of court: criminal contempt 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 they've violated.

On the other hand, criminal contempt of court charges result in punitive sanctions. They serve to deter future acts of contempt by charging them with a criminal offense. This is for punishing the offender for disrupting the court's business or disrespecting the authority of the court. An apt description of the conduct that serves 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 contempt or criminal contempt. These factors can include the nature of the underlying court proceeding (criminal cases or civil cases) and the severity of the contemnor's behavior. Typically, just the threat of contempt penalties is sufficient to deter disruptive and disrespectful behavior. If not, there will be a show cause hearing to determine whether the person should be found in contempt of court. This way, claims of contempt against anyone are adjudicated with the person's due process in mind.

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 or another violation of a court order in a family law case.

Direct contempt is more likely to lead to charges of criminal contempt, but it could be handled as civil contempt of court as well, depending on the circumstances.

Criminal Contempt of Court Charges

Criminal contempt charges become separate charges of criminal conduct, independently of the original matter in court. Unlike civil contempt sanctions, criminal contempt charges may live on after the resolution of the underlying case.

A person charged with criminal contempt generally gets the constitutional rights guaranteed to criminal defendants, including the right to counsel, the right to put on a defense, and the right to a jury trial in some cases. Charges of criminal contempt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt—the burden of proof in all criminal law cases.

However, incarceration for contempt may begin immediately, before the criminal contempt proceeding is held and the sentence is 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, and a conviction will be on your criminal record.


Criminal contempt of court refers to behavior that disobeys, offends, or disrespects the authority or dignity of a court. It can occur directly, in the presence of the court, or indirectly, 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 of the underlying case. You could end up with a contempt conviction if the court determines you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

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 a criminal lawyer 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 legal advice and peace of mind with your case.

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