For the past several months, we’ve been discussing the topic of contempt of court. Defined generally as the willful disobeying of a court’s legal order, contempt of court is a powerful and commonly used tool to ensure that people respect the procedures and follow the rulings of our nation’s court systems. Navigating the complexities of contempt of court claims and petitions requires solid legal counsel.

This month, we’ll examine some consequences that can occur when a court or a jury determines that someone has committed the offense of contempt of court.

Contempt of Court Punishment Depends on the Type of Contempt

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, contempt of court charges fall into two main categories:

  • Civil contempt of court is the most common form. It most commonly occurs when someone fails to abide by a court order: making child or spousal support payments, paying a fine to the court, making a restitution payment, observing a protective order, etc. Civil contempt can also occur when someone disrupts a courtroom proceeding, shows disrespect to an officer of the court, etc.
  • Criminal contempt is less common and occurs when someone deliberately attempts to obstruct justice by threatening a witness, discussing a trial with a member of the jury, hiding or contaminating evidence, etc. Criminal contempt can also occur when someone willfully and repeatedly disobeys a court’s orders.

Depending on the nature of the contempt charge, the punishments can fall into two corresponding categories:

  • Civil contempt punishments are considered “coercive” sentences.
  • Criminal contempt penalties are considered “punitive” sentences.
Man in Jail - Hands on Cell Bars of Prison

Civil Contempt Punishments: Coercive Sentences

If you are found guilty of civil contempt, you may be subject to a punishment unique to contempt cases: coercive sentencing. The intent of a coercive sentence is to convince (or “coerce”) the offender into complying with the order issued by the court.

For example, imagine that you have been ordered to make monthly child support payments to your former spouse in the amount of $600 per month. You have the money and the means to make the payment, but – for whatever reason – you choose not to make your child support payments for several months.

Your former spouse could initiate a contempt claim with the court that ordered the child support payments. You would be served with notice that you were being held in contempt and ordered to either:

  • Make good on the payments that you currently owe your ex-spouse.
  • Appear at a contempt hearing to explain your failure to pay.

If you continue not to pay, and the court does not accept your explanation at the contempt hearing, you could be given a coercive sentence. Unlike any other jail or prison sentence in American law, you would be imprisoned without a predetermined release date.

Under your coercive sentence, you would be held in jail until you agree to make the payments you owe. If your first night in the cell is enough to make you realize you should make your ordered payments, you could be released the next day. If you remain intransigent and continue to refuse, you can be held until you agree to make the payment, even if that means years in jail.

In 1995, a man named H. Beatty Chadwick was found to be in contempt by a court in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. The court ruled that Chadwick had hidden millions of dollars in overseas bank accounts to avoid having to pay that money to his wife during their divorce proceedings. He was imprisoned until he agreed to repatriate the funds to the US.

Chadwick remained in prison for fourteen years. In 2009, the court determined that continuing to hold Chadwick in prison would be no more effective at generating the desired result and ordered his release.

Criminal Contempt Punishments: Punitive Sentences

Unlike a civil contempt charge, criminal contempt charges are – as their name implies – criminal charges. The sanctions for committing criminal contempt are more akin to the types of sentences incurred for other crimes. In a criminal contempt case, the offender is tried in front of a jury, and when the sentence is handed down, there is a definite jail term and release date.

In Georgia, individuals guilty of criminal contempt may be sentenced to no more than twenty days of jail time. Additionally, they may be fined up to $1,000. If there are any actual damages associated with the contempt charge, the offender may be required to make restitution above and beyond the court-ordered fine.

The levying of a fine in a criminal contempt case leads to an interesting intersection of the two types of contempt: if you are found guilty of criminal contempt and then refuse to pay the court-ordered fine, you could then be held in civil contempt and required to serve an indefinite, coercive sentence upon the completion of the punitive sentence.

Don’t Find Yourself In Contempt: Call EMC Family Law Today!

If you find yourself somehow unable to comply with a court order, or if you’re the victim of someone’s disobedience of a court order, contact our team today and let them guide you through your next steps: 770-225-7000

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