Many popular courtroom dramas include a scene in which someone comes bursting through the courtroom doors, shouting, and is immediately held in contempt and put into handcuffs. In a real court setting, this scenario is unlikely -- however, there are a number of instances in which you or a family member attending a court proceeding may find yourself in danger of being held in contempt. Read on to learn more about precisely which courtroom activities can find you answering a charge of direct contempt.
What is the difference between direct and indirect contempt?
You may have heard of someone being held in contempt for failure to pay child support or failure to appear at a court hearing. However, this type of contempt -- termed "indirect contempt" -- is different from criminal contempt (or "direct contempt"). Indirect contempt involves the willful defiance of a lawful court order, while direct contempt involves a disruption of courtroom proceedings.
In order for a judge to find you guilty of indirect contempt, you must be issued notice of a hearing at which you must show cause for why you should not be held in contempt. If you appear at the hearing and can show evidence that you have attempted to right the issue (such as making back payments on child support, or showing that your car broke down just before a previous scheduled appearance) the judge may choose not to hold you in contempt. If you cannot show good cause for why you should not be held in contempt, you may be fined.
For you to be found in direct contempt, you must be engaged in conduct that is disruptive or distracting to the court. The judge may call you before the court as soon as the conduct begins, or instruct you to wait until the other proceedings are over. At that point, you are brought before the judge to apologize or purge your contempt. If you fail to do so, you may be fined or jailed.
What types of activities can lead to a finding of contempt?
Most citizens don't contemplate shouting in the courtroom or passing out pamphlets when they head to court, so contempt may be the farthest thing from your mind. However, many more sedate activities can still find you answering to the judge. For example, in at least one case, a courtroom spectator was found in contempt and sentenced to 30 days in jail for texting on his cell phone during his friend's court proceedings. You may also be found in contempt for frequently entering and exiting the courtroom, or for whispering or laughing, if the judge deems the conduct disruptive.
If you plan to attend court in the future, keep these procedural guidelines in mind -- and keep your cell phone in your pocket! Contact a criminal attorney for more information on the matter.