What is contempt of court?
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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021
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Contempt of court is a display of disrespect or disregard for the authority of a court. Contempt of court can be either civil or criminal in nature, much like the court system itself. Civil contempt is a coercive or punitive mechanism designed to prod the party held in contempt to remedy the wrong they’ve committed. Or, stated another way, civil contempt is the judicial system’s version of negative reinforcement.
There are two basic types of civil contempt. The first is direct contempt, which is contempt occurring in the presence of the judge or presiding officer of the court. Indirect contempt occurs outside the court’s presence but is still a flaunting of the court’s authority. An example of direct contempt would be a witness refusing to answer a question despite being ordered to do so. Another example would be an attorney who ignores a direct instruction from a judge. This could be as simple as arriving late to court.
Direct contempt is dealt with immediately. A judge finding a party in contempt will normally give the party a brief chance to defend itself before rendering judgment. Direct contempt of court usually results in a fine or a brief incarceration in the court’s lockup. The idea is that a monetary penalty or some time to cool one’s heels behind bars will properly motivate the guilty party to curb their troublesome behavior.
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Indirect contempt, as stated above, occurs outside the court’s presence but under the auspices of the court’s authority. The most common example of indirect contempt is failure to comply with an order or subpoena from the court. Courts speak through written orders compelling parties to perform (or refrain from performing) particular actions. For example, a court may issue an order compelling a witness to appear for a deposition. If the witness does not appear at the appointed time and place, the witness is in indirect contempt of court. At that point, the court usually convenes a show cause hearing, which is the opportunity to explain away the lack of compliance. If the court feels the witness did not show sufficient cause to violate the court order, the witness is judged guilty of contempt and either fined or remanded into custody.
Civil Contempt for Third Parties
The most likely pathway to a civil contempt charge is through some type of misbehavior during a lawsuit or other legal proceeding. However, a person can be held in contempt without being party to a lawsuit. Usually this is through failure to respond to a subpoena. A subpoena is a court-issued document ordering an individual to appear in court for a deposition or to produce specific documents. Subpoenas are legally binding documents, and can be issued in lawsuits, investigations, arbitrations, administrative hearings or any number of legal proceedings. It is against the law to ignore a subpoena and ignoring a subpoena will place an individual in de facto contempt of court.
For example, if a UPS delivery person witnesses an accident on his normal delivery route and the people involved get into a lawsuit, the UPS delivery person could be subpoenaed by an attorney involved in the case. If the delivery person ignores the subpoena (either through carelessness or not remembering that he witnessed an accident), he will receive a notice that he is in contempt of court and that he must appear in court at a specific date and time to avoid a bench warrant being issued for his arrest. This is an example of indirect contempt and the UPS delivery person will be legally accountable for his actions.
An individual may wish to consult with an attorney if charged with civil contempt of court. A local attorney, familiar with the judges, will likely be able to successfully navigate a person through the contempt process with a minimum of inconvenience. While it is always possible that a person can be levied a fine or jail time, good judges will use the contempt hearing as a teachable moment, taking the opportunity to reiterate that the individual must comply with the writs and orders of a court of law.
Civil contempt is both the carrot and the buggy whip a court may employ to coax reticent parties into complying with the wishes of the court. Civil contempt is also a mechanism that is used to punish parties found to be disrespectful to the court and/or its officers. Whether it is direct or indirect, any flaunting of a court’s authority can lead to contempt proceedings which can lead to fines or jail time. Common sense, a healthy does of civility and a good attorney are all one needs to avoid most contempt proceedings.