Attending court can be stressful at the best of times. There are many protocols that you need to follow. Requiring you to be respectful of the court and proceedings at all times. This involves many things, some of which can be considered easier than others. Especially if you are already in a volatile situation or under extreme duress. Nevertheless, if you are found to disrespect the court or legal process, you may be found in contempt of court. This has many potential repercussions, which this article discusses.
What is Contempt?
Under Title 18 of the United States Code, four essential elements define Contempt of court, more commonly referred to as contempt. These elements are (1) the misbehaviour of a person. (2) In or near to the presence of the court (3) which obstructs the administration of justice and (4) is committed with the required degree of criminal intent.
In other words, contempt is considered to have occurred when an individual or individuals are found to be disrespectful or disobedient towards a judge or any of the court’s officers. This includes interfering by means of interruption or otherwise, of the court’s orderly process.
The person found guilty of contempt is referred to as the “contemnor”. A judge would need to determine that the contemnor has contravened the following three elements
- The expectation to comply or behave
- The ability to comply or behave
- Being unwilling to comply or behave
If you are found in contempt, the judge will determine whether it is direct or indirect by your actions. And then whether it is civil or criminal contempt.
Direct and Indirect Contempt
- Direct Contempt
As the term suggests, direct contempt can happen directly in front of the presiding judge. Such as ignoring their orders to remain silent or even swearing at a court officer.
- Indirect Contempt
In contrast to direct contempt, indirect contempt occurs outside of the courtroom. An example would be failing to pay a fine that the judge has ordered you to.
Civil and Criminal Contempt
- Civil Contempt
Usually, if found guilty of civil contempt, you can be released from jail on the proviso you correct any deviant behaviour. This tends to be by paying a bond. If you were jailed for nonpayment of a fine. The judge may set your bond for the amount of that fine. Therefore if you pay the bond, you will be released from jail.
- Criminal Contempt
Unlike being found guilty of civil contempt, if you’re found guilty of criminal contempt you can expect to spend some time in jail as well as being expected to pay a bond. This is because being jailed for criminal intent is meant to be perceived as punishment. Whereas jail for civil contempt is still trying to get you to rectify your behauvior.
Your hearing will differ according to whether you are being charged with criminal or civil contempt. This is because the process for the former is more stringent than the latter. Requiring adherence to the procedure to prevent the case from being overturned.
Direct Criminal Contempt
A judge can summarily punish the contemnor if they heard or saw the contemptuous behaviour being committed without the need for a hearing or issuing an order. If the judge finds you guilty they can decide to fine, jail, or do both to you. However, before this is done, you will be allowed to present any mitigating factors to excuse your behaviour or outburst. If you choose to do this, the judge will grant you audience. And thereafter pass judgment as to whether they find you guilty or not guilty. During this judgment, they have to explicitly set forth the facts upon which your conviction is based. Failure to do so could lead to your conviction being overturned.
Indirect Criminal Contempt
The first stage is the judge issuing an order that explicitly details how you were in contempt and violated a court order. This order must detail whether the judge found this out themselves or was privy to information from another party in this regard. It is prudent to understand Rule 3.840 because a court’s failure to adhere to it could enable you to file a motion to dismiss.
Once issued with the order you can file a motion to either dismiss or for a statement of particulars or you can respond by means of defense or explanation. A judge can also issue an order of arrest, which is a rare occurrence. But if this occurs, then they will usually issue a bond, upon payment of which you will be released from jail.
Before the trial or hearing, you will be formally arraigned. The judge can find you guilty, sentencing you to a fine, jail, or both. However as it is an indirect criminal contempt matter, the judge must hear testimony and allow you to present mitigating circumstances in your defense as they did not directly witness your contempt. You should also be given leave to consult with an attorney. The judge can also be assisted by a prosecutor.
The judge must inform you of the accusation and judgment before they pass sentencing. They must also ask you whether you have any just cause as to why sentencing should not be imposed to allow you to present evidence of any mitigating circumstances. Thereafter, the sentence must be passed in open court and your presence. Failure to adhere to this can have your conviction reversed by an appellate court.
As stated at the outset of this section, civil contempt proceedings are much less formal than criminal ones. Nevertheless, you should still seek an attorney to represent you and explain aspects of your case as and when required. This is because you are entitled to due process and have a right to be heard. Despite being less formal, the process should still be taken seriously and treated with the same respect as if it were being heard in more formal circumstances.
Punishment for both civil and criminal contempts of court typically include:
- A fine
- Wage garnishment
- Tax return seizure
- Revocation or suspension of any professional license
Furthermore, your contempt of court can be seen by any judges presiding over future cases that involve you. This could damage your credibility with the court. Another thing that could cause potential damage is the fact that criminal contempt shows on any background checks done, whereas civil contempt may not.
Being found in contempt of court is a serious matter that can have possible repercussions thereafter. Being aware of what is acceptable behauvior and knowing how to conduct yourself within the court system is vital. This is to ensure that you do not bring yourself into disrepute and to avoid any legal action because of it. Failure to do so could mean that you need our advice a lot sooner.