What is criminal contempt?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Criminal contempt is generally regarded as a disobedience or open disrespect for the court. Even though it may arise out of a criminal or civil case, it punishes conduct that violates a court’s rule, rather than a penal statute or some criminal law. What is considered “criminal contempt” will vary by state. However, the consequences, penalties, and procedures tend to be similar because of the overall objective to punish violations of a court’s rules.

A common example would be if a judge has a global rule for his courtroom like “all cell phones must be turned off in the courtroom,” but an individual repeatedly refuses to turn off their cell phone and thereby continuously disrupts the court. The judge could hold the individual in civil contempt. Likewise, if you’re subpoenaed to testify and you don’t show up or refuse to answer questions, a judge could hold you in contempt.

The potential contempt violations also don’t end in court. Direct contempt could describe what we think of as open disregard for court proceedings. Indirect contempt can also be punished, and it happens outside the court, but pertains to court proceedings.

How a criminal contempt order is entered depends on the state. Because criminal contempt generally includes at least the possibility of confinement in jail, some states impose specific procedural requirements. For example, in California, if an act is not committed in the judge’s physical presence, an affidavit setting out sufficient facts must be filed. Without the affidavit, a contempt order cannot be entered. States which set out procedures, like Maryland, adopt procedures similar to those of a regular criminal case, including a higher burden of proof, a demonstration of willfulness, or the necessity of some type of hearing. Less formal states do not require a hearing and treat criminal contempt much less informally. If the judge sees, hears, or learns about the bad act, then the judge can enter a contempt order without any formal hearing. Essentially, the judge simply makes a docket entry and orders the bailiff to take the person into custody for a period of time.

How Do You Get Relief from a Contempt Order?

Criminal contempt orders are generally temporary enforcement orders with less jail time attached. They are not generally appealable in some states. A person can obtain relief from a judge’s criminal contempt order by either: (1) complying with the court’s original order/rule, (2) filing a motion to reconsider, or (3) filing a writ of habeas corpus. A writ basically alleges that the holding of a defendant in contempt is excessive punishment or without good cause.

Regardless of whether the hearing is a formal contempt hearing or an appeal from a contempt order, criminal contempt procedures are public hearings which anyone can attend. Because jail time is a possible consequence, some states will afford a person an attorney to deal with a contempt charge when a judge is seriously considering jail time. In some contempt cases, the judge can keep you in jail until you comply.

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What Is the Punishment for Criminal Contempt?

Criminal contempt punishments and consequences usually include either the payment of a fine or some period of confinement in the county jail. Criminal contempt does not usually include incarceration in a regular prison. The goal of criminal contempt is to either punish or bring an individual into compliance with a court’s order. So months in jail or other lengthy periods of confinement are unlikely, but not impossible. If relief requires cooperation and you don’t cooperate, you could be in jail for a long time.

Criminal contempt fines can range from fifty dollars to several thousands of dollars. Because the confinement is criminal in nature, many states will report periods of confinement for criminal contempt on their criminal history, like any other criminal offense.

Most people naturally stress over the jail time associated with a criminal contempt charge. However, criminal contempt can have other collateral consequences on a party to a civil or criminal lawsuit. The first and most direct result is that rule violations aggravate the judge that will ultimately decide a person’s case. Aggravating a judge that is about to rule on your case is rarely a good idea. The same is true when a criminal contempt order is entered in a jury trial or evidence of the contempt is presented to the jury. Many cases turn on the credibility of a witness. If a witness is held in criminal contempt, the order can be a reflection on that person’s character.

Another collateral result is a negative impact on employment. If a person is confined to jail for a lengthy period, like six months in county jail, the extended confinement can result in the loss of wages or a job altogether. In addition, contempt charges may appear in background checks performed by employers or landlords, which could cause problems securing a job or licensing, or renting.

Can a Criminal Defense Attorney Help with Contempt Charges?

If you’re already facing criminal charges when you’re found in contempt, your lawyer can represent you in any related criminal proceedings. If your only criminal charge is contempt, you can request an attorney to advise you on your options. Their best advice may be to comply with the court’s orders.

If you need legal help, you can request an attorney during interrogation or in jail. You can also go online to find an attorney who is right for you.

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