We hear it all the time on TV, “I’m holding you in contempt of court!” But what does it mean? Contempt of court encompasses more than just an outburst in the courtroom. If you are interested in learning about it, you should know:
The different types, causes, and uses;
Why contempt of court is a crime; And
Why society would not be the same without it.
Contempt of Court is More Complicated Than TV Makes it
There are two types of contempt: criminal contempt of court and civil contempt. Civil contempt is when people defy court orders.
If your contempt of court case is caused by not paying bills, and you can prove that you do not have the money to do so, you will not go to prison. As a general rule, no one goes to prison because of debt.
If you are not paying for some reason other than lack of funds, you may be sent to prison and forced to pay.
Criminal contempt of court is what you have most likely seen on TV: outbursts, insults, or anything that gets in the way of the proceeding.
Someone in jail for criminal contempt cannot comply with the court and expect to be released. Those held in contempt can include parties to a proceeding, attorneys, witnesses, jurors, people in or around a proceeding, and officers or staff of the court itself.
Judges use different factors when deciding whether to hold someone in civil or criminal contempt, including the nature of the underlying court proceeding (criminal or civil) and the severity of the behavior.
Why is Contempt of Court a Crime
The two types of contempt of court are in place for the same reason. It ensures people act in compliance with the court, both in and out of the courtroom.
Judges use punishments for civil contempt cases to try to make defendants comply with the court order that they have violated. People often say that a person who is guilty of civil contempt “holds the key to the cell in their pocket”. Whatever the sanction placed on them is, it lifts once they comply with the court order.
If we did not have laws for indirect contempt of court cases, people would not have the motivation to uphold their end of a legal agreement.
For criminal cases of direct contempt of court infractions, charges come because of an outburst in court. Or, they do something that interferes with the ability to proceed with the case. These charges are a preventative measure to stop future bad behavior.
The logic is that people should be better at controlling their emotions in a courtroom. It is not always easy depending on what is going on in the case, but it is the court's way of holding their occupants to the highest standard. Getting in the path of court proceedings wastes time and interferes with hearings.
What Would Happen to Society Without These Sanctions
It would not be anything like the movie The Purge, but probably a little closer to that than anyone would like. The court uses contempt of court as a catch-all to uphold proper behavior and respect.
If no punishment for acting out in court, proceedings would move much slower. People would face no penalty for interrupting.
For indirect cases, the court would have to find another way to enforce court orders, which only affect one or two people. However, for instances like DUI cases, the defendant would be ordered to drive a car with an IID. It becomes a public safety issue if the court cannot punish them.
Holding people accountable for what they have done is a part of growth. The criminal justice system disciplines and punishes to make better people.