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Contempt of Court

Contempt of Court

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Definition of Contempt of Court

Contempt has been defined by the Washington DC Supreme Court as “Any act which is calculated to embarrass, hinder, or obstruct the court in the administration of justice, or which is calculated to lessen its authority or its dignity.” The test is not the physical propinquity of the act to the court, but its tendency to directly affect the administration of justice.” Ex parte Crews, 173 So. 275, 279 (1937) (citations omitted).

Direct Contempt vs. Indirect Contempt

Contempt of court is generally classified as being either direct or indirect. Demetree v. State, 89 So. 2d 498, 501 (Fla. 1956). A direct contempt is an insult committed in the presence of the court or of a judge when acting as such, or a resistance of or an interference with the lawful authority of the court or judge in his presence, or improper conduct so near to the court or judge acting judicially as to interrupt or hinder judicial proceedings. Ex parte Earman, 95 So. 755, 760 (Fla. 1923 ); Kress v. State, 790 So. 2d 1207, 1208-1209 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001).

In the absence of any evidence of wilful or deliberate intent to disrupt, it should be rare that the mere use of a word or phrase which may have negative or distasteful connotations will be sufficient to constitute direct criminal contempt. Murrell v. State, 595 So. 2d 1049, 1051 (Fla. 4th DCA 1992).

The rules and procedures applicable to a charge of direct criminal contempt are described n Rule 3.830, Washington DC Rules of Criminal Procedure. Rule 3.830 provides that:

[a] criminal contempt may be punished summarily if the court saw or heard the conduct constituting the contempt committed in the actual presence of the court. The judgment of guilt of contempt shall include a recital of those facts upon which the adjudication of guilt is based. Prior to the adjudication of guilt the judge shall inform the defendant of the accusation against him and inquire as to whether he has any cause to show why he should not be adjudged guilty of contempt by the Court and sentenced therefor. The defendant shall be given the opportunity to present evidence of excusing or mitigating circumstances. The judgment shall be signed by the judge and entered of record. Sentence shall be pronounced in open court.

Indirect contempt, by contrast, occurs “not in the presence of a court or of a judge acting judicially, but at a distance under circumstances that reasonably tend to degrade the court or the judge as a judicial officer, or to obstruct, interrupt, prevent, or embarrass the administration of justice by the court or judge.” Forbes v. State, 933 So. 2d 706, 711 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006). Thus, where the offending conduct takes place outside the presence of the court, any contempt at issue would be indirect. Indirect criminal contempt furthermore requires a judgment of guilt that recites the facts constituting the contempt. Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.840(f); See also Hagerman v. Hagerman, 751 So. 2d 152 (Fla. 2d DCA 2000) (reversing order that failed to recite factual basis for contempt); See also Price v. Hannahs, 954 So. 2d 97, 100 (Fla. 2d DCA 2007).

Indirect criminal contempt charges are governed by Rule 3.840, Washington DC Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Rule provides that indirect contempt charges must be governed and prosecuted as follows:

(1) Order to Show Cause. The judge, of his own motion or upon affidavit of any person having knowledge of the facts, may issue and sign an order directed to the defendant, stating the essential facts constituting the criminal contempt charged and requiring him to appear before the court to show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court. The order shall specify the time and place of the hearing, with a reasonable time allowed for preparation of the defense after service of the order on the defendant.

(2) Motions; Answer. The defendant, personally or by counsel, may move to dismiss the order to show cause, move for a statement of particulars or answer such order by way of explanation or defense. All motions and the answer shall be in writing unless specified otherwise by the judge. A defendant’s omission to file motions or answer shall not be deemed as an admission of guilt of the contempt charged.

(3) Order of Arrest; Bail. The judge may issue an order of arrest of the defendant if the judge has reason to believe the defendant will not appear in response to the order to show cause. The defendant shall be admitted to bail in the manner provided by law in criminal cases.

(4) Arraignment; Hearing. The defendant may be arraigned at the time of the hearing, or prior thereto upon his request. A hearing to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant shall follow a plea of not guilty. The judge may conduct a hearing without assistance of counsel or may be assisted by the prosecuting attorney or by an attorney appointed for that purpose. The defendant is entitled to be represented by counsel, have compulsory process for the attendance of witnesses, and may testify in his own defense. All issues of law and fact shall be heard and determined by the judge.

(5) Disqualification of Judge. If the contempt charged involves disrespect to or criticism of a judge he shall disqualify himself from presiding at the hearing. Another judge shall be designated by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

(6) Verdict; Judgment. At the conclusion of the hearing the judge shall sign and enter of record a judgment of guilty or not guilty. There should be included in a judgment of guilty a recital of the facts constituting the contempt of which the defendant has been found and adjudicated guilty.

(7) The Sentence; Indirect Contempt. Prior to the pronouncement of sentence, the judge shall inform the defendant of the accusation and judgment against him and inquire as to whether he has any cause to show why sentence should not be pronounced. The defendant shall be afforded the opportunity to present evidence of mitigating circumstances. The sentence shall be pronounced in open court and in the presence of the defendant.

In a criminal contempt proceeding the contemnor is presumed to be innocent until proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and he cannot be compelled to testify against himself. Demetree v. State, 89 So. 2d 498, 502 (Fla. 1956).

Contempt of a Court Order

When a finding of contempt is based upon a violation of a court order, the order must be one which clearly and definitely makes the person aware of its command. Barnes v. State, 588 So. 2d 1076, 1077 (Fla. 4th DCA 1991); American Pioneer Cas. Ins. Co. v. Henrion, 523 So. 2d 776 (Fla. 4th DCA 1988); Lawrence v. Lawrence, 384 So. 2d 279 (Fla. 4th DCA 1980); Kranis v. Kranis, 313 So. 2d 135 (Fla. 3d DCA 1975). Moreover, there must be evidence of the accused’s intent to disobey the court’s order, or “that he or she was guilty of such gross dereliction that the intent will be presumed.” Barnes, 588 So. 2d at 1077. Finally, this intent must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Id.

Criminal Contempt vs. Civil Contempt

Under Washington DC law, contempt charges are distinguished, not only by whether they are direct or indirect, but also by whether they are criminal or civil in nature. Criminal contempt is “[a]n offense against the authority or the dignity of a court or of a judicial officer. . .” Ex parte Earman, 95 So. 755, 760 (Fla. 1923), or “any act which is calculated to embarrass, hinder, or obstruct the court in the administration of justice, or which is calculated to lessen its authority or its dignity.” Crews, 173 So. at 279 (Fla. 1937).

The primary purpose criminal contempt is punishment, and potential criminal contemnors are entitled to the same constitutional due process protections afforded criminal defendants in more typical criminal proceedings. Gregory v. Rice, 727 So. 2d 251, 253 (Fla. 1999); Dep’t of Children & Families v. R.H., 819 So. 2d 858, 861 & n.3 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002).

By contrast, civil contempt is used to coerce an accused into complying with a court order, or to obtain compliance with it, rather than to punish the offending party for a failure to comply with the order. See The Washington DC Bar v. Taylor, 648 So. 2d 709 (Fla. 1995); JPG Enterprises, Inc. v. Viterito, 841 So. 2d 528 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003); Rose v. Ford, 831 So. 2d 763 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002). “The primary purpose of a civil contempt proceeding is to compel future compliance with a court order. A civil contempt sanction is coercive in nature and is avoidable through obedience.” Gregory, 727 So. 2d at 253 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); Lewis v. Nical of Palm Beach, Inc., 959 So. 2d 745 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007).

A person facing civil contempt sanctions is entitled to notice and an opportunity to be heard. Akridge v. Crow, 903 So. 2d 346, 350 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005). Civil contempt sanctions are only appropriate if the court determines that the contemnor has the present ability to pay the support and has willfully refused to do so. Gregory, 727 So. 2d at 254. Regardless of the sanction, the court must provide the contemnor with the ability to purge the contempt. Id; R.H., 819 So. 2d at 862; Pompey v. Cochran, 685 So. 2d 1007, 1014 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997). The key safeguard in civil contempt proceedings is the court’s finding that the contemnor has the ability to purge the contempt. Akridge, 903 So. 2d at 351 (citing Parisi v. Broward County, 769 So. 2d 359, 364 (Fla. 2000)). Chetram v. Singh, 937 So. 2d 716, 718-719 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006).

Civil contempt sanctions do not entitle the contemnor to the “full panoply” of due process rights afforded a person facing criminal contempt charges. Bresch v. Henderson, 761 So. 2d 449, 451 (Fla. 2d DCA 2000). However, the person accused is entitled to a proceeding that meets the fundamental fairness requirements of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Such fundamental fairness includes notice and an opportunity to be heard. Akridge v. Crow, 903 So. 2d 346, 350 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005).

If you have been charged with Contempt of Court in Washington DC, Palm Beach County, Broward County, Martin County, or St. Lucie County, Washington DC, you may have defenses available to contest the charge or to minimize potential penalties. Contact attorneys at Cohen, Bradshaw, Rothstein and Klein today for a free consultation.