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Three Types of Contempt

So, you have a court order and your ex won’t follow it. Maybe they are keeping you from seeing the kids. Maybe they are behind on their child support. Maybe they won’t sign a document you need. How do you make someone follow a court order? Unfortunately, there is no way for the legal system to make someone into a better, law-abiding person. Thankfully, there is a way to motivate people to follow court orders: the contempt process.

There are three kinds of contempt: direct contempt, civil contempt, and criminal contempt.

Direct Contempt

This is pretty rare. This is when someone disrupts a judicial proceeding in front of the judge. It can include swearing in court, arguing with the judge, making threats, and any number of disruptive behaviors. When someone does one of these things, the judge can immediately find them to be “in contempt of court” and incarcerate them.

Generally, people are pretty well behaved in front of the judge and only violate orders outside of court. This is called Indirect Contempt. Which kind of Indirect Contempt is correct for a given situation depends on what the facts and goals are.

Civil Contempt

Civil contempt is designed to compel someone to follow a court’s order. It is typically used to force someone to take an action (like signing a deed or refinancing a house) or to stop someone from engaging in a pattern of conduct (like continually withholding children from the other parent). Civil contempt is easier to prove than criminal contempt. If the Court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the person is violating the court order, they can be sentenced to indefinite incarceration until they comply with the order. This is because the law says they “have the keys to the jailhouse in their own pocket” meaning that they can get out of jail whenever they obey the order.

Criminal Contempt

This is designed to punish specific instances of conduct. For example, if someone misses three alimony payments they are guilty of three “counts of criminal contempt.” Criminal contempt isn’t designed to make someone follow an order, it is designed to punish. Because of this, the penalties and protections are much greater. Each instance of criminal contempt carries 10 days in jail and/or a $50 fine with it. So, someone who violated a court order 18 times could potentially be in jail for 6 months and owe $900 in fines. Because the penalties are so much harsher, people accused of criminal contempt are entitled to all the rights of someone who is arrested and accused of a crime. They have the right to an attorney, a right to remain silent, and the right to have each count of contempt proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the judge finds someone in either kind of contempt, he can also order that the party who violated the court order pay your attorney’s fees. Sometimes it’s possible to pursue both forms of contempt against someone. When that happens, the lawyer can only pursue one at a time. Making that decision is key because each kind of contempt requires different sorts of proof. This is why having a lawyer who is very familiar with the contempt process is key.

Call (865) 685-4780 to schedule a case assessment with a Held Law Firm attorney.