Contempt of court is a serious legal violation that involves acts of disrespect, disobedience, or interference with the orderly process of a court. This article provides an overview of contempt of court, its classification, essential elements, and potential penalties. We will also explore the impact of social media on court proceedings and examine notable examples of contempt of court cases.
What Is Contempt of Court?
Contempt of court refers to actions that show disrespect or disobedience towards a court or interfere with its proceedings. Such actions can include disrupting court hearings, interfering with evidence collection, destroying evidence, disregarding court orders, and intimidating witnesses.
A contempt order can address misconduct both within and outside the courtroom, including public displays of disrespect towards the court. In essence, any behavior that disrupts the court, shows disrespect, or jeopardizes the fairness of a case’s outcome can result in being held in contempt of court.
Classifications of Contempt of Court
Contempt of court can be broadly classified into two categories: criminal versus civil, and direct versus indirect.
Criminal versus Civil
Criminal contempt of court is considered a crime and involves punitive measures such as fines or imprisonment. These charges are separate from the underlying case being heard. On the other hand, civil contempt charges aim to enforce compliance with a court order and can be avoided by obeying the order.
Direct versus Indirect
Direct contempt occurs within the presence of the court, while indirect contempt occurs outside the court’s immediate jurisdiction.
Essential Elements of Contempt of Court
Under Title 18 of the United States Code, contempt of court contains four essential elements:
- Misbehavior of any person in or near the court that obstructs the administration of justice.
- Misbehavior of court officers in their official transactions.
- Disobedience or resistance to lawful writs, processes, orders, rules, decrees, or commands issued by the court.
If these four criteria are met, a judge may hold the violating person in contempt of court. The consequences can range from monetary fines to imprisonment.
Contempt of Court and Social Media
The widespread use of online tools and social media has posed new challenges for the justice system. To ensure juror impartiality and avoid mistrials, jurors are typically instructed to refrain from seeking external information or communicating about the case until a verdict is reached.
In the past, jurors have faced contempt of court charges for using the internet during jury duty. Examples include a juror in the United Kingdom who was jailed for internet-related contempt of court after exchanging messages with a defendant on Facebook (now Meta), leading to the collapse of a multi-million-pound trial. Similarly, other cases have seen jurors jailed for making comments on social media platforms or conducting online research on the case they were involved in as jurors.
A Reuters Legal study found that over 100 verdicts in the United States since 1999 have been challenged due to juror misconduct involving the internet.
Notable Example: Martin A. Armstrong Case
The case of Martin A. Armstrong serves as a famous example of civil contempt of court. Armstrong, a former financial advisor, was accused of a $3 billion Ponzi scheme in a civil suit of securities fraud.
In 2000, a federal judge ordered Armstrong to surrender approximately $15 million worth of assets, including gold bars, rare coins, and antiquities. Armstrong claimed he did not possess these assets, and his repeated failure to produce them resulted in a seven-year imprisonment on various criminal charges, including fines associated with contempt of court.
In 2007, Armstrong pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hide trading losses amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, leading to an additional five-year prison sentence. He was released in March 2011.
Penalties for Contempt of Court
In the United States, individuals held in criminal contempt of court during a federal jury trial can face fines of up to $1,000 per instance and/or up to six months in prison. Penalties may vary depending on the state, with some states imposing more strict or lenient guidelines. For instance, New York State can sentence someone held in criminal contempt to up to four years in state prison, while in Florida, the maximum penalty is one year in county jail.
It’s important to note that other countries also have the authority to impose fines or imprisonment for contempt of court.
Examples of Contempt of Court
Contempt of court can be demonstrated in various ways, including:
- Disrupting court proceedings.
- Disobeying or ignoring a court order.
- Refusing to answer the court’s questions as a witness.
- Publicly commenting on a court case when instructed not to do so.
- Making disparaging remarks about the court or judge.
Challenging a Contempt of Court Accusation
Like other legal rulings, a contempt of court order can be challenged through an appeal to a higher court. To succeed in the appeal, the petitioner must provide evidence that the contempt order was unfair or mistaken. Generally, appeals must be filed within a specific timeframe to be considered valid.
Purging a Contempt of Court
In civil contempt of court cases, individuals accused of contempt may have the opportunity to erase it from their record by complying with and obeying the court’s orders, both within and outside the courtroom.
Contempt of court encompasses various acts that disrupt the legal process or show disrespect towards the court. Understanding the classifications, essential elements, and potential penalties associated with contempt of court is crucial. The emergence of social media has also posed new challenges, particularly regarding juror misconduct. By being aware of the consequences and legal implications, individuals can navigate court proceedings with greater respect and compliance.