Litigation & Appeals Law

Contempt of Court

Contempt of court is a charge that refers to actions that either obstruct or impede the due process of judicial procedures or actions (or inactions) that do not comply with orders given by a court authority. There are two different categories of contempt — direct and indirect (or constructive contempt) — as well as different legal definitions of contempt concerning either civil contempt or criminal contempt.

Contempt of court can complicate your legal case so it is important to understand what to do if you are facing criminal contempt charges. Criminal law on contempt and court rules are different in every state, so it is important to talk to a criminal defense attorney in a city near you to get the best advice about your case.

What Is Contempt of Court?

The person who is found to be in contempt is known as a contemnor. One of the most common examples of indirect contempt involves an obligor who refuses to pay their court-ordered child support payments. In the administration of justice, a judge may go through a contempt proceeding to charge the individual with civil contempt for failure to make child support payments.

Failure to testify in district court or failure to comply with a subpoena could also result in contempt of court. Direct disobedience during court for insolent behavior, such as a defendant insulting a superior court judge or an officer of the court will be charged as criminal contempt.

Civil contempt aims to remediate the situation, and generally involves out-of-court actions, while criminal procedures aim to penalize offenders for inappropriate, abusive, or other misbehavior that perverts the judicial process and dignity of the court (and this typically occurs in a court proceeding). When a juror is called for jury duty, failure to complete jury service can result in contempt of court.

Is Civil Contempt Different From Criminal Contempt?

Civil contempt is differentiated from criminal contempt largely by the potential outcomes of a conviction for the criminal defendant (criminal cases being more serious, usually). There is also a difference in terms of the intent of a suit (civil contempt seeks to fix or bring into alignment, an established order).

Private citizens who feel that an obligor is not abiding by the terms of a settlement, for example, as well as individuals who note that an aggressor is not abiding by the terms of an established restraining order, may choose to file a motion of civil contempt.

What Is the Punishment for Contempt of Court?

The punishment for criminal contempt of court includes various potential punishments, widely ranging based on the jurisdiction.

In Florida, for example, state Statute 38.23 defines contempt, and Statute 38.22 lays out the procedure for any charge of criminal contempt levied upon an individual. First, an order of the court is issued by the judge laying out the material facts related to the contempt charge, and then the defendant (or their legal counsel) will have the ability to motion to dismiss, making an argument for such.

If the motion to dismiss is denied, an arrest order is issued, and the accused may either be held or released on bail. An arraignment hearing follows, and the judge may recuse themselves in favor of another judge if the contempt involves them personally. Finally, a verdict is delivered, and a sentence is meted out if the accused is found guilty of criminal contempt of court.

In Florida, this may involve up to one-year imprisonment in county jail. In Texas, the maximum punishment for criminal contempt is six months imprisonment as well as a potential fine of up to $500. In Ohio, the punishment for criminal contempt runs up to a period of time of 30, 60, or 90 days imprisonment in addition to potential fines of no more than $250, $500, and $1,000 per the Ohio Revised Code Section 2705.05. These ranges are for first, second, and third offenses, respectively.

Does Contempt of Court Go On Your Record?

Whether or not being found guilty of contempt of court will result in a mark on your criminal record depends on whether you are found guilty in a civil contempt action (typically indirect contempt) or criminal contempt (typically direct contempt).

Civil contempt proceedings usually do not result in a criminal record. Criminal contempt charges, if followed through to a full conviction, can certainly result in the criminal charges being added to your record, just like any other criminal offense. A contempt hearing with a finding of contempt can even result in a jail sentence.

Is Contempt of Court a Felony?

While criminal contempt of court is usually classified as a misdemeanor, in rarer circumstances contempt charges can be classified as felonies. For example, in CaliforniaPenal Code Section 166 provides that such contempt charges related to a second or subsequent restraining order violation can be charged as a felony offense, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for up to a year or in state prison for up to 3 years.

How to File Contempt of Court

When individuals file contempt of court charges (most common in family law or divorce cases involving individuals refusing to pay court-ordered spousal support, surrender possessions, or abide by a custody order) they must do so in the same county and court where the initial court order was first formalized.

You may need to retain an attorney to go through the paperwork before filing contempt of court. In Florida, petitioners must file a motion and sign the associated paperwork in front of a deputy clerk or notary public. The original is then filed with the clerk of the circuit court in the relevant county.

What Is Contempt of Court in Family Court, Divorce, or Child Custody Terms?

Contempt of court involving family law, divorce law, and situations surrounding child custody is almost always classified as a civil contempt matter. A parenting plan is supposed to provide for how parents share custody, conditions for visitation, and how to allow for communication with the child. When one parent fails to follow the court-ordered parenting plan, the district court judge may find the parent in contempt for failure to follow a court order in the presence of the court.

For example, if both individuals who have divorced file their taxes while claiming the same child as a dependent, this may trigger a motion of civil contempt from one party to the other. Only one parent may claim the child on their taxes following a divorce, and if the non-custodial parent does not have a formalized agreement allowing them to be the sole claimant in any given tax year, a motion of civil contempt could potentially be brought against them if they refuse to amend the tax filing.

If you are facing a criminal type of contempt and want help during criminal contempt proceedings, an experienced attorney can provide you with legal advice for judicial proceedings. A count of contempt could result in fines, sanction for contempt, force you to do something, or even provide for months in jail time for the person in contempt.

A criminal proceeding should not be handled lightly. A district attorney or city attorney may start a criminal contempt action or contempt sanctions for disobeying the terms of a protection order in a domestic violence case. Even a civil proceeding can be a complicated legal process that can benefit from the experience of a reasonable attorney who can help you in a civil action to avoid civil contempt sanctions.

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