Few legal terms are as broadly defined as “contempt of court.” These three short words represent a wide array of actions that generally comprise any intentional act that shows a disregard for the authority of a court. Whether the action in question was an outburst in a courtroom, failure to pay court-ordered child support, or trying to discuss trial details with a juror outside the courtroom, contempt of court can lead to severe penalties for the offender.
Below, you’ll find some frequently asked questions about contempt of court, along with answers to help you understand what is involved in a contempt of court charge.
Is Contempt of Court a Felony?
In Georgia, contempt of court is never considered a felony. That statement, however, can be misleading due to the nature of contempt of court penalties in Georgia.
Contempt of court charges fall into two baskets: civil contempt and criminal contempt. In a criminal contempt case, the offender has typically committed some offense that disrupts a court’s authority or ability to conduct its business effectively. Examples of criminal contempt might be getting into a shouting match with an attorney during a trial or disrespecting the judge or bailiff.
In the case of criminal contempt, Georgia law allows for a fine of up to $500 and 20 days in jail, which classifies the crime as a misdemeanor.
Unusually, the penalties can be more severe for a case of civil contempt, but with a catch. Civil contempt usually involves the willful disregard of a court order – failing to pay court-ordered spousal support or refusing to provide ordered visitation time with a co-parent’s children.
Civil contempt charges, while not a felony, are the only occasion in which a person can be jailed indefinitely, with no established release date. Rather, someone jailed for civil contempt can be held in jail until they agree to start complying with the court order. This type of sentence, called “coercive sentencing,” does not result from a felony. Still, if the offender is particularly unwilling to comply with the order, it can result in considerably more jail time than most felonies. (A Delaware man spent 14 years in prison for refusing to release assets to his ex-wife as required by a court order.)
Am I Entitled to a Lawyer For My Contempt Case?
The answer to this question also depends on the nature of the contempt charge, and again requires contempt offenses to be split into two baskets: direct contempt and indirect contempt:
- Direct contempt happens in a courtroom, chambers, or otherwise in the presence of a judge.
- Indirect contempt happens outside of the courtroom.
In the event of a direct contempt charge (such as the above outburst or shouting match), since the offense happened in front of a judge, the law only requires that the judge give the accused or their counsel (if present) a moment to explain or apologize for their actions. If the explanation or apology is inadequate, the judge may immediately rule on the case and sentence the offender.
In the event of an indirect contempt charge (such as failing to pay child support or discussing a trial with a juror), the accused’s entitlement to counsel depends again on the nature of the contempt:
- People charged with indirect civil contempt have the right to an attorney but are not entitled to one. If you cannot afford an attorney, the court is under no obligation to provide you with free counsel.
- People charged with indirect criminal contempt have been accused of a crime and are entitled to counsel. If you cannot afford an attorney because you meet the standards for indigence under Georgia law, a public defender will be assigned to argue on your behalf.
How Can Contempt of Court Be Proven?
This question prompts another somewhat complicated answer.
Generally speaking, direct contempt of court charges have no particular standard of proof since the offense occurred in a courtroom before a judge. As stated above, direct contempt charges are usually handled summarily, with the judge handing down a sentence immediately after the charge has been levied.
Indirect contempt of court charges usually require four things to be true to be upheld by the court:
- There must have been an order from a court. That order can be a formal, written court order such as spousal support or protective order or a verbal order from the judge (“Be quiet and sit down!”).
- The accused must be aware of the order.
- The accused must have disobeyed the order intentionally.
- The accused must have been able to comply with the order.
So, in the example of a parent failing to make a child support payment, for a contempt charge to stick, the other parent must prove:
- The court ordered the accused to make payments in a certain amount.
- The accused received a copy of the order.
- The accused has not paid the other parent per the agreement.
- The accused has access to funds or assets that allow them to pay as ordered.
If someone is accused of contempt for failing to make a child support payment but could not have possibly made the payment because they have no money or assets, then the contempt charge should be dismissed. Similarly, if the failure to pay was an accident – the check was mailed in a misaddressed envelope, or the accused forgot to pay one month – then contempt has not occurred.
Are You the Victim of Someone’s Disregard of a Court Order? Call EMC Family Law Today!
Our attorneys have years of experience petitioning the courts for contempt charges against non-compliant co-parents, spouses, and violators of protective orders. Tell us about your situation today: 770-225-7000