What Is Contempt of Court?
Contempt of court is an act of disrespect or disobedience toward a court or interference with its orderly process. Examples include disrupting court proceedings, interfering with attempts to obtain evidence, destroying evidence, disobeying a court order, and intimidating witnesses.
A contempt order may address behavior both in the courtroom and outside it, including public displays of disrespect toward the court. In short, risk being found in contempt of court if you act in a way that is disruptive, disrespectful, or that threatens the fair verdict or outcome of a case.
- Contempt of court is a legal violation committed by an individual who disobeys a judge or otherwise disrupts the legal process in the courtroom.
- Contempt of court is broadly classified into two categories: criminal versus civil, and direct versus indirect.
- Contempt of court contains four essential elements under Title 18 of the United States Code.
- If the four criteria are met, a judge may hold the violating person in contempt of court, which carries a range of punishments, including monetary fines and jail time.
- Any individual in the courtroom, from defendants or plaintiffs to witnesses or lawyers, is capable of being held in contempt of court.
Understanding Contempt of Court
Contempt of court contains three essential elements under Title 18 of the United States Code:
- Misbehavior of any person in its presence or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice;
- Misbehavior of any of its officers in their official transactions;
- Disobedience or resistance to its lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command.
Contempt of court is broadly classified into two categories: criminal versus civil, and direct versus indirect. As criminal contempt is a crime in the ordinary sense, such contempt charges are punitive—involving fines or imprisonment—and are separate from the underlying case being heard. Civil contempt charges are aimed at compelling future compliance with a court order and can be avoided through obedience.
Direct contempt occurs in the presence of the court, while indirect contempt occurs outside the court’s presence.
Judges have wide latitude in deciding whom to hold in contempt of court, as well as the type of contempt. An act of disrespect, disobedience, defiance, or interference by any of the parties involved in a legal proceeding—from witnesses and defendants to jurors and lawyers—can be considered as contempt of court.
Social Media and Contempt of Court
Exponential growth in the use of online tools and social media has resulted in new challenges for the justice system. In order to ensure juror impartiality and avoid the possibility of a mistrial, the courts have always instructed jurors to refrain from seeking information about cases apart from evidence introduced at trial, and also to avoid communication about a case before a verdict is reached.
In the past, jurors have been jailed for contempt of court for using the internet while serving on the jury. In 2011, a juror in the United Kingdom was jailed for eight months—becoming the first juror in the country to be prosecuted for internet-related contempt of court—after she exchanged messages with a defendant on Facebook (now Meta), causing a multi-million-pound trial to collapse.
Two years later, in 2013, two jurors in the U.K. were jailed for two months on contempt of court charges after one of them made comments on Facebook about the defendant, while the other conducted online research on the case he was involved in as a juror.
A Reuters Legal study found that more than 100 verdicts in the United States since 1999 had been the subject of challenges because of internet-related misconduct by jurors.
Example of Contempt of Court
The case of Martin A. Armstrong is a famous example of civil contempt of court. Armstrong, a former financial advisor who founded a firm known as Princeton Economics International, was accused of a $3 billion Ponzi scheme by the U.S. government in a civil suit of securities fraud.
In January 2000, he was ordered by a federal judge to turn over to the government about $15 million in gold bars, rare coins, and antiquities. Armstrong claimed that he did not have the assets, and his repeated inability to produce them resulted in him being jailed for seven years on various criminal acts, along with fines associated with contempt of court charges.
In April 2007, Armstrong was sentenced to five years in jail after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to hide trading losses amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. He was released from prison in March 2011.
Penalties for Contempt of Court
In the U.S., those held in criminal contempt of court during a federal jury trial can face fines of up to $1,000 per instance and/or up to six months in prison. Some states may have more strict or lenient guidelines. New York State, for instance , may sentence someone held in criminal contempt to up to four years in state prison. In Florida, you may spend up to one year in county jail.
Other countries also can levy fines or imprisonment for contempt of court.
What Are Some Examples of Contempt of Court?
Contempt of court can be found if someone is found to be disruptive to court proceedings, disobeying or ignoring a court order, refusing to answer the court's questions if you're called as a witness, publicly commenting on a court case when instructed not to do so, or making disparaging remarks about the court or judge, among others.
Can a Contempt of Court Accusation Be Challenged?
Yes, like many other legal renderings, a contempt of court order can be challenged by appeal to a higher court. A successful appeal will have to provide evidence that the contempt order was unfair or mistaken. Appeals will typically have to be filed within a certain number of days in order to be valid.
What Is Purging a Contempt of Court?
In the case of a civil contempt of court claim, the accused may have the opportunity to purge (erase) it from their record if they comply and obey the court's orders and maintain decorum both inside and outside of the courtroom with respect to the case.
The Bottom Line
Contempt of court is a broad legal term that encompasses a wide variety of acts—from disrespectful behavior in the courtroom to personal or public interference with the legal process. Civil contempt is aimed at compelling future compliance with a court order and can be avoided through obedience. Criminal contempt of court is typically punishable with a fine or imprisonment.