What is criminal contempt?

Criminal contempt is generally regarded as a disobedient or open disrespect for the court. Even though it may arise out of a criminal or civil case, it punishes conduct that violates a court’s rule, rather than a penal statute or some criminal law. What is considered “criminal contempt” will vary by state. However, the consequences, penalties, and procedures tend to be similar because of the overall objective to punish violations of a court’s rules.

Generally, contempt is designed to address courtroom or rule violations. For example, if a judge has a global rule for his courtroom like “all cell phones must be turned off in the courtroom,” but an individual repeatedly refuses to turn off their cell phone and thereby continuously disrupts the court, then the judge could hold the individual in contempt. The judge can impose a contempt order, even though the individual did not violate a criminal law or statute. Violating an order of the court, a bond condition, or displaying disrespect for the authority of the court are common criminal contempt situations.

How a criminal contempt order is entered depends on the state. Because criminal contempt generally includes at least the possibility of confinement in jail, some states impose specific procedural requirements. For example, in California, if an act is not committed in the judge’s physical presence, an affidavit setting out sufficient facts must be filed. Without the affidavit, a contempt order cannot be entered. States which set out procedures, like Maryland, adopt procedures similar to those of a regular criminal case, including a higher burden of proof, a demonstration of willfulness, or the necessity of some type of hearing. Less formal states do not require a hearing and treat criminal contempt much less informally. If the judge sees, hears, or learns about the bad act, then the judge can enter a contempt order without any formal hearing. Essentially, the judge simply makes a docket entry and orders the bailiff to take the person into custody for a period of time. 

Relief from a Contempt Order

Because criminal contempt orders tend to be temporary enforcement orders with less jail time attached, they are not generally appealable in some states. However, a person can obtain relief from a judge’s criminal contempt order by either: (1) complying with the court’s original order/rule, (2) filing a motion to reconsider, or (3) filing a writ of habeas corpus.  A writ basically alleges that the holding of a defendant in contempt is excessive punishment or without good cause. Regardless of whether the hearing is a formal contempt hearing or an appeal from a contempt order, criminal contempt procedures are public hearings which anyone can attend. Because jail time is a possible consequence, some states will afford a person an attorney to deal with a contempt charge when a judge is seriously considering jail time.

Punishment for Criminal Contempt

Criminal contempt punishments and consequences usually include either the payment of a fine or some period of confinement in the county jail. Criminal contempt does not usually include incarceration in a regular prison. The goal of criminal contempt is to either punish or bring an individual into compliance with a court’s order, so this does not usually require a lengthy period of incarceration. Criminal contempt fines can range from fifty dollars to several thousands of dollars. Periods of jail time for criminal contempt can range from one day to up to six months, or more, depending on the nature of the contempt and a state's contempt rules. Periods of incarceration are usually served day for day. This means that a person must stay in jail for the entire time ordered by the court. Because the confinement is criminal in nature, many states will report periods of confinement for criminal contempt on their criminal history, like any other criminal offense.

Other Consequences of Contempt

Most people naturally stress over the jail time associated with a criminal contempt charge. However, criminal contempt can have other collateral consequences on a party to a civil or criminal lawsuit. The first and most direct result is that rule violations aggravate the judge that will ultimately decide a person’s case. Aggravating a judge that is about to rule on your case is rarely a good idea. The same is true when a criminal contempt order is entered in front of a jury or evidence of the contempt is presented to the jury. Many cases turn on the credibility of a witness. If a witness is held in criminal contempt, the order can be a reflection on that person’s character. Another collateral result is a negative impact on employment. If a person is confined to jail for a lengthy period, like six months in county jail, then the extended confinement can result in the loss of wages or a job altogether. In addition, contempt charges may appear in background checks performed by employers or landlords, which could cause problems securing a job or licensing, or renting.