Contempt of Court Law in California

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 What Does Contempt of Court Mean in California?

Contempt of court in California is found in California Penal Code 166. In general, contempt of court is an individual’s failure to comply with a court order.

California, similar to most states, recognizes two categories of contempt of court: criminal contempt and civil contempt. In the State of California, criminal contempt of court includes specific types of misconduct.

This misconduct is what an individual is held in contempt and punished for. Misconduct may include indirect contempt or contempt that occurs outside of the courtroom, such as failing to pay child support that a court has repeatedly ordered payment of.

Direct misconduct occurs in the context of court proceedings and may include, but is not limited to:

  • Failing to remain silent when ordered to do so by a judge;
  • Witness or jury tampering;
  • Ignoring a subpoena;
  • Failure to attend a court appearance.

Criminal contempt punishes an individual’s misconduct. Civil conduct, however, has a different purpose.

When the judge finds an individual in civil contempt of court, it does so to ensure that the individual undertakes a specific action or refrains from engaging in a specific action. The action, or the refraining from that action, is something that the individual had previously agreed to do.

A judge can fund an individual in civil contempt of court for things such as failing to complete a real estate transaction or failing to comply with a child visitation order. If a judge finds an individual in civil contempt, the individual may be fined or incarcerated.

In civil contempt, in contrast to criminal contempt, once the individual undertakes the required act, they are no longer in contempt.

What Is Criminal Contempt of Court?

In the State of California, criminal contempt of court involves acts or behavior that disrespect the judicial process. An individual who engages in contempt is called a contemnor.

The behavior that constitutes contempt is known as contumacious. Criminal contempt of court in California is typically punished as a misdemeanor.

In California, the law outlines specific examples of criminal contempt of court, including:

  • Behavior that is disorderly or insolent;
    • This behavior is committed in the presence of a judge and is intended to disrupt court proceedings or to disrespect the court process;
  • Disorderly or insolent behavior committed in front of a referee, who is an individual who is appointed by a court to oversee a dispute, may qualify as criminal contempt of court;
    • This behavior may qualify as contempt of court if committed before the referee:
      • at a trial;
      • at a hearing;
      • in front of a jury;
  • Acts that constitute breach of the peace or calm and quietness;
    • These types of acts, which may include noise or other physical disturbances, must interrupt the orderly workings of the court;
  • Willful, or deliberate or intentional, disobedience or resistance to a court order or process;
  • A defiant and unlawful refusal of an individual to be either sworn or affirmed as a witness or to answer a question material to a case;
  • Publishing an account of court proceedings that is false; or
  • Deliberately disobeying an injunction or a court order to stop or refrain from doing something that restrains street gang activities.

What Does the State Have to Prove to Convict Me of Contempt of Court?

In California, a judge may cite an individual for contempt of court. This means that the judge informs the individual that their behavior is contumacious.

Under the American criminal justice system, judges do not prosecute crimes; only prosecutors do. The citation for contempt has to be charged and proven by a prosecutor.

The prosecutor is required to prove each element of the charge of contempt of court beyond a reasonable doubt. In order to prove contempt for failure to comply with a court order, the prosecution has to show:

  • A judge issued a legal order;
  • The defendant was aware of the order and its terms;
  • The defendant was capable of complying with the court order; and
  • The defendant intentionally failed to comply with the order.

Can I Get Jail Time for Criminal Contempt of Court?

The penal code of the State of California provides the punishment for criminal contempt of court. Under the state penal code, criminal contempt of court is classified as a misdemeanor, as noted above.

Criminal contempt of court is typically punishable by a jail sentence of up to six months as well as criminal fines of up to $1,000. It is important to note that there are specific acts of contempt that will carry greater punishments.

A violation of a protective order in domestic violence or elder abuse cases carries punishments of up to one year in jail. An additional violation of these types of orders may be punished as misdemeanors.

If this occurs, a defendant may face up to three years in state prison. If an individual has any questions about criminal contempt of court, they should consult with a local California lawyer.

Are There Any Defenses to Criminal Contempt of Court in California?

Yes, there are defenses that a defendant may be able to assert to a charge of criminal contempt of court in California. The defendant may argue that the prosecution failed to prove each element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.

When this occurs, the defendant cannot be convicted. The defendant may also assert that they did not willfully or intentionally violate a court order or did not engage in conduct that rises to the level of being disorderly.

Another possible defense is that the defendant was genuinely willing to comply with a court order but, for some reason, is not or was not able to comply with the order. If the defendant could not comply, they have not committed a crime.

They would be considered unable to comply if they lacked the mental capacity to comply. A defendant would also be considered unable to comply if they lack the mental capacity to comply.

The defendant will also be considered unable to comply if compliance is literally physically impossible. This can occur if the defendant is physically incapacitated, for example, by being in a coma.

In certain situations, the terms of a court order may not be clear, or they are ambiguous. If the terms of an order are not clear, the defendant can assert this as a defense to the charge of criminal contempt.

An ambiguous term is a term that is not clear regarding what is required of the defendant in the order. For example, a family court may order a defendant to be civil to a certain family member or to make efforts to find employment. If so, the defendant may be able to argue that the terms “be civil” or “make efforts” are too vague to comply with.

Should I Contact a Lawyer for My Criminal Contempt Charge?

If you are facing criminal contempt of court charges, it is important to consult with a California criminal lawyer. Your lawyer can review the circumstances of your case, advise you regarding your legal rights and options, and represent you during any hearings or trials.

Your attorney can determine if any defenses to criminal contempt charges are available in your case. In addition, your attorney may be able to negotiate with the prosecution for a dismissal when possible.


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