What does it mean to be held in “contempt of court”?

In a personal injury or other type of trial, a judge may issue an order to hold a party, an attorney, or another person in contempt of court if that person has been disobedient, disrespectful, or acted in another way that disrupted the court’s proceedings.  Known as “contempt” for short, this order is often a judge’s strongest tool for punishing those whose repeated antics prevent the court from completing its business.

A person may be held in contempt for many different reasons.  Some of the most common reasons include:

  • failing to obey an order of the court (as long as that order was lawful),
  • showing disrespect for the judge or others in the courtroom, including violent behavior,
  • disrupting the court’s proceedings with noise or other “acting up”, or
  • publishing material likely to prevent one of the parties from receiving a fair trial.

Many judges will warn a misbehaving person that, if he keeps misbehaving, he will be held in contempt of court.  The warning gives the person a chance to correct his behavior without facing legal sanctions.  However, this warning is not required; a judge may hold a person in contempt without first telling him to straighten up.  For instance, a person who is required by a subpoena to appear in court but does not may be held in contempt without ever speaking to the judge first.

An order for contempt of court can only stand legally if it meets all of the following requirements:

  • it orders a person to do or not do something that is lawful,
  • the person held in contempt knew of the order to do or not do a lawful thing,
  • the person was able to comply with the order, but
  • the person failed to comply with the order.

In U.S. civil courts such as those that hear personal injury and similar cases, courts typically recognize two different kinds of contempt: direct contempt and indirect contempt.  Direct contempt occurs in the presence of the judge.  In these cases, the judge will typically point out the misbehavior, explain that the person is in contempt, and give the person a chance to explain himself.  The judge may then impose a sanction immediately.

In indirect contempt, the misbehavior does not occur in court.  Instead, one party accuses the other of having acted in contempt, and the court hears both parties before imposing any sanctions.  Indirect contempt is often involved when a court has entered an order requiring one party to do or not do something that benefits the other party.  If the order is not complied with, the party that was wronged may accuse the other of contempt.  For instance, suppose that the plaintiff in a torts case filed a motion to compel the defendant to provide certain documents in discovery, and the court granted the  motion.  If the defendant does not comply with the court’s order to turn over the documents to the plaintiff, the plaintiff may tell the court that the defendant is still not obeying and should be held in contempt.

Once a person is found to be guilty of contempt of court, he or she may face a fine, jail time, or another penalty.  Incarceration for contempt usually lasts only as long as the contempt continues, for instance until a fine is paid or until a party complies with a court order to do (or stop doing) a particular thing.  Contempt may be either civil or criminal.  If criminal, it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, just like any other criminal charge.

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