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Criminal Contempt Laws

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What Is Contempt of Court?

Generally speaking, contempt of court refers to any conduct that insults, defies, or disrespects the “dignity” or authority of a court. Conduct that’s disruptive to a court proceeding, or that mocks or insults court officers can result in a contempt order. Persons who can be held in contempt of court (the “contemnor”) can include the parties to a trial, lawyers, jurors, witnesses, court officers, and other persons in our around a court during a proceeding. 

Contempt can take many forms, including:

  • Refusing to comply with instructions or requests from a judge or court official
  • Using disrespectful, or inappropriate language
  • Disobeying or disregarding court orders
  • Publishing material that is likely to interrupt a court proceeding
  • Engaging in conduct that is disruptive to the court proceeding or dangerous to the persons involved

Legal consequences that result from being held in contempt may be classified as either “civil” or “criminal”. Also, contempt of court may either be direct (occurring in the presence of the judge) or indirect (occurring outside the actual court proceeding). 

How Is Civil Contempt Different from Criminal Contempt?

Both civil and criminal contempt may result in legal consequences such as a fine or a short term of imprisonment. However, sanctions for contempt are said to be “civil” if the contemnor can be released if they comply with the court’s orders or requests. The contemnor is said to “hold the keys” to their confinement.

On the other hand, with criminal contempt, the contemnor may not be released from confinement even if they agree to comply with the court’s orders. That is, the sanctions are intended to punish the person rather than to encourage them to comply with a court order.

Criminal contempt is often the result of contempt that is directed toward the court, whereas civil contempt typically results from conduct between the two parties in a lawsuit. Criminal contempt can also occur in a civil case, not just in criminal cases. 

Should I Contact a Lawyer?

Criminal contempt laws can often present additional challenges in an existing court proceeding. If you have any questions or concerns involving criminal contempt, you should contact a criminal defense lawyer for advice. Your attorney can help advise you on the laws in your area, and can give you the best guidance on how to proceed.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 09-30-2016 07:33 AM PDT

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