It’s a common-enough scene in movies and on television: following a dramatic outburst or a defiant staring contest between a lawyer and a witness, the judge bangs their gavel and makes an angry proclamation that the offending party is being held in contempt of court. Things usually then proceed as normal, as though the contempt of court charge was no more than a particularly-effective admonishment from the judge to knock out the nonsense and get back to business.

As with nearly everything you see in courtroom dramas, nothing could be further from the truth. In the real world, contempt of court is a very serious charge and can come with penalties including significant fines and jail time ranging from a few days to several years.

But what, exactly, constitutes contempt of court?

Contempt of Court = Disobedience

To put it succinctly, contempt of court occurs whenever someone willfully disobeys a court or judge’s lawful order or command or takes any specific action designed to subvert the court’s proceedings or lawful authority. Contempt charges are the court’s tool for ensuring that:

  • Trials and other proceedings are undertaken correctly, without undue distraction, and according to the rules and policies that govern the proceedings.
  • Court orders are obeyed by all parties affected by the order.
  • Trials and other judgements are fairly decided.

Contempt of court is an unusual offense in the American justice system, in that:

  • It is one of the only instances in which punishment may be meted out summarily, almost as soon as an offense occurs.
  • Some types of contempt are the only situation in which a person can be incarcerated indefinitely by the court to try to force an offender to comply with a court order (called “coercive sentencing”).

Types of Contempt

In general, a contempt of court charge will fall into two categories: it will be either direct or indirect, and it will be either civil or criminal.

  • Direct contempt: Contempt that happens in a courtroom, such as an outburst, insulting a judge, refusing to answer a direct question (unless the 5th Amendment is invoked), or otherwise disrupting court proceedings.
  • Indirect contempt: Contempt that happens outside the courtroom, such as failure to pay a fine, failure to provide child support or spousal support payments, violating a custody agreement, or disobeying a protective order.

What Happens When Someone Is Held in Contempt of Court?

3d interior jail
3d interior jail

In direct contempt cases, summary judgement is usually the immediate response. As soon as the judge determines that an individual’s behavior warrants a contempt charge, the judge will declare the charge and issue the punishment. A fine or jail sentence can be levied immediately, and if sentenced to jail, the person may be taken directly from the courtroom into custody. In these cases, only a higher court can overturn the judge’s decision.

Indirect contempt cases are usually initiated by the person or entity who was supposed to benefit from a particular court order:

  • If a parent fails to make court-ordered child support payments, the other parent may initiate a contempt petition.
  • If a protectee’s restraining order is violated by their harasser, they can petition the court directly to have the offender arrested for contempt.
  • The court can also initiate a contempt claim for someone’s failure to pay a fine or appear for jury duty.

If someone is held in indirect contempt, they will be compelled to appear before the court to explain their actions, and judgement and sentencing will typically take place during that appearance.

In the case of criminal contempt, the process is more involved. Like any other criminal case, a person charged with criminal contempt will be formally charged, and the case will proceed like other criminal cases. The accused will have an opportunity to argue their case in court, and a jury will decide whether or not the accused is guilty of contempt.

Contempt of Court Penalties

Being held in contempt of court, or being found guilty of criminal contempt, can carry severe consequences. These penalties are considered either “punitive” or “coercive,” depending on the nature of the charge.

Individuals found guilty of criminal contempt of court in Georgia may be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to serve up to 20 days in prison. A sentence for criminal contempt is, like most other criminal sentences, punitive and the term of imprisonment must be pronounced when the sentence is handed down.

Civil contempt penalties are considerably more complicated. Civil contempt penalties can be coercive if the court can prove that the person disobeying the court’s order has the means to comply with the order and is simply failing to do so. In these cases, the offender may be held in custody indefinitely, until they choose to comply with the order.

Examples of situations in which an offender may be given a coercive sentence include:

  • A parent with access to sufficient funds but who fails to make child support payments may be held until they make the ordered payments.
  • A witness who refuses to answer a question to which they know the answer may be held until they provide an answer. (Note: This does not apply to witnesses who have invoked their 5th Amendment right allowing them to refuse to provide an answer which could incriminate themselves.)
  • A suspect who has been ordered to produce documents by the court and refused may be held until they cause the documents to be presented.

Coercive sentences can last as long as the defiance continues. In American history, the longest anyone has ever served for contempt of court was 14 years. In 1995, a Delaware man refused to produce $2.5 million ordered by the court as spousal support for his ex-wife. In 2009, the judge determined that the coercive imprisonment was not effective and was unlikely to generate the desired results and ordered the man’s release.

Civil contempt may also lead to punitive sentences, including fines and short jail sentences.

Contempt of Court Is a Powerful Tool for the Courts – and for Victims. Call EMC Family Law Today!

Our attorneys have years of experience petitioning the courts for contempt charges against noncompliant coparents and spouses and violators of protective orders. Tell us about your situation today: 770-225-7000


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