What Is Contempt of Court?

Contempt of court is an act of disrespect or disobedience towards a judge or court's officers, or interference with its orderly process.

Contempt of court has four essential elements under Title 18 of the United States Code – (1) misbehavior of a person; (2) in or near to the presence of the court; (3) which obstructs the administration of justice; and (4) is committed with the required degree of criminal intent.

Key Takeaways

  • Contempt of court is a legal violation committed by an individual who disobeys a judge or otherwise disrupts the legal process in the courtroom.
  • 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, are all capable of being called in contempt.

Understanding Contempt of Court

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. 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.

Example of Criminal Contempt of Court

The case of Martin A. Armstrong is a famous example of criminal contempt of court. Armstrong, a former financial adviser 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 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.

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. A Reuters Legal study in 2010 found that since 1999, at least 90 verdicts in the United States have been the subject of challenges because of Internet-related misconduct by jurors.

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, causing a multi-million pound trial to collapse. In 2013, two jurors in the UK 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.