Throughout my years practicing law and in my role as a guardian ad litem, I often hear misconceptions about contempt. Usually I hear statements along the lines of “I don’t want a criminal record” or “if I am found in contempt I will be arrested.” This post is intended to dispel some of these misunderstandings and to set the record straight.
Contempt can be civil or criminal, direct or indirect. The difference between civil or criminal lies in the purpose of the punishment. Direct or indirect contempt contrasts between acts committed either in the presence or outside of the presence of the court.
A finding of civil contempt results in an order that is remedial, coercive and for the benefit of the other party. The punishment is intended to force the contemnor’s compliance with court orders. Examples of the consequences of a contempt finding include money fines, orders directing compliance with the court orders, or even an indefinite jail sentence until the contempt is cured. It is often said that the contemnor “holds the key to the jail in his pocket” because curing the contempt will set him free. In family matters, motions for contempt are often brought for failure to pay child support, failure to abide by the parenting schedule, or selling or encumbering property in violation of a non-hypothecation order. Jail is a remedy of last resort, and one that usually only follows repeated, intentional refusals to abide by court orders or extreme behavior. The court will usually exhaust other remedies, such as payment of the other parties’ attorney’s fees, before sending a person to jail for civil contempt. A civil finding of contempt does not appear on a person’s criminal record.
In contrast, a person who has been found in criminal contempt does not hold the keys to the jailhouse, and remedying the contempt will not set him free. The punishment is punitive, and intended to protect and preserve the dignity and authority of the court. Indirect criminal contempt proceedings must generally follow to procedural formalities of criminal proceedings. The defendant is entitled to reasonable notice, providing a date and time for the proceeding and warning that the contempt is considered criminal. The prosecutor must prove the elements of contempt beyond a reasonable doubt, and the contemnor is entitled to counsel and holds the right against self-incrimination. If the court intends to impose a sentence of greater than six months, the defendant has the right to a jury trial.
An example of criminal contempt, and the confusion that can result between criminal and civil contempt, is the New Hampshire case of Mortgage Specialists v. Davey. Mortgage Specialists sued the defendants for violation of trade secrets. Following a preliminary injunction, the defendants destroyed documents in violation of the court order. The court found the defendants in contempt, believing that they had thumbed their noses at the trial court’s authority and thwarted the dignity of the process, and issued penalties including attorney’s fees, fines and a penalty of three times the amount of profits unjustly reaped from the violation of trade secrets. The Supreme Court vacated the finding because the defendants were not provided notice that the contempt proceedings would be criminal.
Indirect contempt is conduct that takes place outside of the presence of the court. The court does not have first-hand knowledge. Instead, the acts of contempt must be proved through evidence. An interesting case that distinguishes direct contempt versus indirect contempt is Kristen McGuire v. Suzanne Collins. In McGuire, a litigant in a custody matter arrived at the courthouse smelling of alcohol. The court security officer approached the litigant, and a state trooper performed a preliminary breath test. The results were not provided to the litigant, or her attorney. However, when she appeared before the court for the hearing, the judge informed her that she had blown a .20, well above the legal limit. However, the litigant displayed no disorderly behavior in the courtroom. The judge sentenced to litigant to 30 days in jail for direct, criminal contempt for appearing before the court in an inebriated state. However, the sentence was overturned by the Superior Court following a filing for a writ of habeus corpus because the family division judge had not personally observed the elements of contempt. Instead, the court had to rely on the observations of the court staff and the preliminary breath test conducted by the state trooper to prove the elements of contempt. Therefore, the court did not have direct knowledge and could not conduct summary proceedings resulting in the immediate incarceration.
Direct contempt takes place in the presence of the court where the judge personally observes all of the elements of contempt. The following is a perfect example of direct contempt from Maryland in the case of Patrick Smith v. State of Maryland:
THE DEFENDANT: What is the maximum on contempt, sir?
THE COURT: What is the maxim um on contempt? If I am going to give you in excess of six months, I believe I have to give you a jury trial, is that correct . . . ?
[STATE’S ATTORNEY]: Yes.
THE COURT: Mr. Smith, I am not going to give you in excess of six months.
THE DEFENDANT: Let me tell you something.
THE COURT: What?
THE DEFENDANT: You say you won’t give me in excess of six months.
THE COURT: Yes.
THE DEFENDANT: You know what? You have been sitting up there in the trial in every hearing I have had for this far, right? From day one, you have been very prejudiced to the defense. I asked you, right, a while ago, you tried to skip out on even bringing forth an allegation. You say it is only a bald allegation. I am not asking you to believe me. I am asking you to bring forth the witnesses in this case who could testify —
THE COURT: I asked you if you had anything you want to say as to what sentence the Court should impose —
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah. You know what? You can give me six more months, motherfucker, for sucking my dick, you punk ass b itch. You should have a white robe on, motherfucker, instead of a black. Fuck you.
THE COURT: I find you in contempt again.
THE DEFENDANT: Fuck you in contempt again.
THE COURT: I find you three times in contempt —
THE DEFENDANT: Fuck you. And fuck.
THE COURT: On each charge, the Court will impose a sentence of five months to run consecutive to each other and consecutive to any sentence you are now serving or obligated to serve.
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah. You better leave now, you, Ku Klux Klan.
Other examples of direct contempt include assaulting another person in the courtroom or refusing to testify when ordered to do so. When direct contempt occurs, the court may skirt procedural formalities required of indirect contempt in light of the court’s direct knowledge of the contempt. The word “summarily” does not refer to the swiftness of the punishment, but rather the dispensing with the formalities that accompany a conventional trial such as service of process, notice of hearing, and submission of evidence. Instead, the court must give the contemnor oral notice of the contempt observed, an opportunity to speak in his defense, where after the court may issue a finding of guilty and pronounce sentence.