Civil or Criminal Contempt
Disobedience to a court order is considered contempt of court. In California, like in most states, civil contempt and criminal contempt are recognized as forms of contempt of court. There are certain occasions in California when criminal contempt of court is used. An individual’s behavior causes them to be regarded “in contempt” and punished. “Indirect” contempt, or contempt committed outside the courtroom, may be considered misconduct. Failing to pay child support, for example, is an example of this kind of misconduct. “Direct” refers to courtroom misconduct that occurs throughout a case. Non-compliance with a court order to keep quiet includes tampering with evidence or witnesses, failing to appear in court when summoned, and failing to appear in court when directed to do so by the judge.
Civil contempt is distinct from criminal contempt because it serves a different goal. Judges use civil contempt of court to guarantee that a person does or refrains from doing a particular action, if necessary. If a person fails to finish a real estate deal or fails to comply with a child visitation order, a judge may put them in civil contempt of court. A court may either incarcerate or penalize the person in question as punishment for civil contempt. It’s important to note that in a case of criminal contempt if a person does a particular act, they are no longer in contempt.
Contempt of Court Defined in California
Contempt for a court’s authority includes the following actions or omissions concerning the court or its proceedings:
- Contemptuous or disrespectful conduct in the courtroom toward a judge when they are in charge and it disrupts trial proceedings
- Violent or unruly behavior that disrupts the flow of a trial or judicial hearing; also known as disorderly conduct
- An attorney, lawyer, clerk, sheriff, coroner, or any other person appointed or elected to carry out judicial or ministerial duties engages in improper conduct or willfully neglects or violates their responsibilities.
- Inappropriate use of the court’s processes and procedures or pretending to operate per court order or procedure
- Disobeying any legal court order, judgment, or process;
- Getting someone or something out of the custody of a police officer because of a court order or process;
- Illegally holding a witness or a party to a case while they are going to, staying at, or leaving the court where the case is scheduled to be tried;
- Any other illegal interference with the process or proceedings of a court;
- Refusing to obey a subpoena that has been appropriately served or refusing to be sworn in or testify;
- When called to assist as a juror in a court, failing to show up or do so, improperly talking to a party to a case that will be tried in that court or to anyone else about the case’s merits, or getting a message from a party or other person about the case without telling the court right away;
- A lower court, magistrate, or officer not following the lawful judgment, order, or process of a higher court or acting against the law in action or particular proceeding after that action or special proceeding has been taken out of the lower court, magistrate, or officer’s jurisdiction.
Penalties to a Contempt of Court
The prosecution must be able to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in every criminal case. Contempt of court is misconduct punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000 each day the defendant fails to comply with a court-ordered restriction. A misdemeanor conviction under California Penal Code 166 is punishable by up to one year in jail. However, the consequences for some breaches of the law are different. Contacting a victim, for example, may result in a fine of $5,000 and up to one year in county prison. If you violate a protection directive, you might face up to a year in prison and a fine of $1,000.
Legal Defenses to a Contempt of Court
The prosecutor’s case must prove each element of contempt in court. Prosecutors must be able to prove: The defendant defied a court order that was given to him legally; they were aware of it and its conditions; they were competent to comply, and they did so knowingly and voluntarily.
Contempt may be fought by asserting:
No court-order violation
The defendant must argue they didn’t purposefully defy the court order or action because they didn’t know about it, did it by mistake, or couldn’t follow it.
The defendant might claim he didn’t do any disrespectful acts to establish his innocence.
The defendant might allege they’re wrongfully blamed for disobeying a court order.
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Seppi Esfandi is an Expert Attorney who has over 21 years of practice defending a variety of cases.