March 17, 2016

Most people who get served with a notice for a contempt hearing do not understand the seriousness of the situation or the severity of the consequences that it entails.  Consequences may include an order to pay high attorney’s fees, a jail sentence of up to 30 days, or high fines.  The purpose of this blog is to provide general information based on our clients’ most common questions.  Anyone facing a contempt hearing should seek representation or at least legal advice from an experienced attorney.

A contempt procedure is the means for the court or a private person to enforce any court order or decree.  Contempt is not limited to any one type of case.  It is available to enforce any established order (i.e. child support, child custody and visitation, orders of protection, etc.)  It is also available to enforce the court’s authority for interrupting a court proceeding, for refusing to be sworn or answer questions, for disrespecting the court, or for failure to comply with the court’s schedule or practices.

There are two types of contempt, civil and criminal, which differ by their purpose.  The purpose of civil contempt is to provide a remedy to an aggrieved party by coercing the defendant to obey a court order.  On the other hand, criminal contempt is used to preserve the court’s authority by punishing the defendant for past violations.  Thus, in civil contempt, the defendant is presently not complying with an order, while the defendant in a criminal contempt had violated a court order or decree sometime in the past.

Most people assume that criminal contempt is worse than civil contempt because “criminal” means the likelihood of a jail sentence, thus defendants are often less worried and less prepared when facing a civil contempt hearing.  The truth, however, is that a jail sentence, fines, or a combination of both is possible under both types of contempt.  Additionally, civil contempt allows for attorney’s fees while criminal contempt only allows for fine up to $500 and court costs.  Also, a defendant should know that criminal contempt will appear in a person’s criminal record but does not count for sentencing purposes in criminal matters.  So, whether it is civil or criminal contempt, fines or jail time can cause financial hardships, can put a person’s employment in jeopardy, or can even be grounds for the suspension of occupational or other licensing privileges.  Thus, a defendant would benefit from discussing his or her particular situation with an attorney to minimize the possible outcomes and avoid collateral consequences.

Defending a contempt matter also requires knowing the specific statutory requirements.  The commencement of criminal and civil contempt has specific statutory procedural requirements such as giving proper notice, proper service, and for criminal contempt to be initiated by the court and not a private party. The non-compliance of these requirements may be grounds for dismissal.  The criminal and civil contempt statutes also require the judge to find willfulness of the defendant’s acts without justification or excuse, and the defendant’s ability to comply.  Evidence rebutting the contempt and failing to support these findings can also lead to a dismissal.  Therefore, these statutory requirements are tools and another reason why consulting with an attorney is important to help you prepare a defense.  It would be detrimental to proceed with the hearing and unknowingly waive any issues, or to risk being found in contempt when it could have been avoided. 

Again, this blog is for informational purposes only, but we encourage our readers to contact us immediately for legal assistance related to contempt.