What Does It Mean to Be Held in Contempt of Court?
There's a certain level of respect and obedience that citizens of the United States are expected to have towards the court system. In particular, everyone in the courtroom is expected to follow all court orders and show a high level of respect toward the judge and other court workers. If this doesn’t happen, the offending party could be found in contempt of court.
Being held in contempt of court is a serious matter and could have serious implications, including jail time.
Contempt of court refers to the willful disregard or disrespect of the court’s authority regarding court proceedings, court workers or court orders. If these behaviors occur in the courtroom or pertain to a court order, the judge can hold the person responsible in contempt of court. The person being held in contempt of court is referred to as the contemner and could face significant consequences.
There are two primary types of contempt of court, including criminal and civil contempt of court. Although both types can have serious consequences, there's a significant difference.
Criminal contempt of court typically occurs in the courtroom, and the judge is a direct witness to the disobedience or disrespectful behaviors. For example, the contemner may yell at the judge, fail to provide requested evidence or fail to show up for a court hearing. In these cases, the judge can immediately hold the person in contempt of court.
Civil contempt of court typically occurs outside the courtroom. It usually involves a person’s willful disobedience to a court order. For example, failure to pay court fines and restitution, failure to obey a protection of abuse order or failure to comply with a child custody order could all be reasons for a person to be held in contempt of court. Since these actions are often indirect, or outside the judge’s direct view, evidence must be brought to the courts before a person can be found in contempt of court.
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The judge has the authority to punish anyone found in contempt of court with fines or imprisonment or both. However, the sentence a contemner receives may depend on the type of contempt of court.
If you’re found in contempt of court on a civil matter, the primary goal of the court is to enforce the court order and ensure the contemner abides by it. The judge may only order you to pay a fine. However, the judge may also order jail time for a specific timeframe or until you come into compliance with the court order.
For example, if you’re found in contempt of court for failing to pay child support, the judge may order you to spend three months in jail. However, the judge may allow you to get out of jail early if you come into compliance with the court order by paying all or a portion of the back child support you owe.
On the other hand, if it’s a civil matter, the main goal of the court is to punish the contemner for their actions. The judge also has the authority to fine the contemner or sentence them to a set number of days in jail.
Since contempt of court has very serious consequences that include jail time, it’s highly recommended that you seek legal counsel to represent you in court. If you can prove to the court that you weren’t disobedient or disrespectful or provide evidence that your actions were accidental or unintentional, you may be able to have these charges dropped or secure a reduction in your fines or sentencing.
The best way to avoid contempt of court charges is to always show a high level of respect in the courtroom and to abide by any court orders. If you're held in contempt of court, it may be best to seek legal counsel to protect your rights.
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