Every state court and the federal court system will hold a person in “contempt of court” for willfully disobeying a court order. Of course, many people violate court orders every day, such as parents who fail to pay court-ordered child support on time, or business people who fail to pay court-ordered final judgments for money when they are due. When a person deliberately and willfully fails to abide by a court order – with intent to violate it – and with the capacity and ability to obey it, that person is committing a crime: the crime of criminal contempt.
At the federal level, in fact, fines up to $1,000 and jail time up to six months may be imposed for criminal contempt. The federal statute entitled Contempts Constituting Crimes, 18 U.S.C. § 402, reads as follows:
Any person, corporation or association willfully disobeying any lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command of any district court of the United States or any court of the District of Columbia, by doing any act or thing therein, or thereby forbidden, if the act or thing so done be of such character as to constitute also a criminal offense under any statute of the United States or under the laws of any State in which the act was committed, shall be prosecuted for such contempt as provided in section 3691 of this title and shall be punished by a fine under this title or imprisonment, or both.
Sometimes, a court will hold a person in contempt without finding them guilty of any crime. This “civil contempt” is generally designed to assist the complaining party, such as a parent who is not receiving her child support payments. By holding the paying parent in contempt, the court, in such a case, is attempting to put pressure on the paying parent to comply with the court order while protecting the recipient parent and the child. But when a person has been charged with “criminal contempt,” it means that the court seeks to punish the offender for disobedience that has occurred.
The difference between civil and criminal contempt is important. While civil contempt must be proved by clear and convincing evidence, in a criminal contempt case the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition, in a prosecution for criminal contempt, a defendant is entitled to a trial by jury, along with all of the fair-trial protections of the Sixth Amendment.
If you or someone you know has been charged with criminal contempt, please contact the Law Offices of Mark S. Guralnick at 1-866-337-2900 for a free case evaluation.