Contempt of court generally refers to conduct that defies, disrespects or insults the authority or dignity of a court. Often, contempt takes the form of actions that are seen as detrimental to the court’s ability to administer justice.
Judges typically have much 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 and civil contempt.
Civil contempt often involves the failure of someone to comply with a court order. Judges use civil contempt sanctions to coerce such a person into complying with a court order the person has violated.
Criminal contempt charges, on the other hand are punitive, meaning they serve to deter future acts of contempt by punishing the offender no matter what happens in the underlying proceeding. Someone incarcerated for criminal contempt cannot secure their own release by deciding to comply with the court.
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.
Criminal Contempt Charges
Criminal contempt charges become separate charges from the underlying case. 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 end up presiding over the contempt proceedings.
Criminal contempt can bring punishment including jail time and/or a fine.
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. Be aware that not all of these examples illustrate criminal contempt.
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.