Contempt of Court

Contempt of court is generally defined as an act or omission that tends to obstruct or interfere with the orderly administration of justice or that impairs the dignity of the court or respect for its authority.  “Direct contempt” occurs openly and in the presence of the court.  “Constructive contempt” results from matters outside the court, such as a failure to comply with the court’s orders.

There is also a distinction between civil contempt of court and criminal contempt of court.  Civil contempt can result from a failure to comply with a court order that was issued for another party’s benefit.  The punishment is usually remedial, such as the payment of a fine or imprisonment for an indefinite period of time until the party in contempt agrees to perform his legal obligation.

Criminal contempt results from an act that obstructs justice or attacks the integrity of the court.  As such, criminal contempt is a crime in the ordinary sense of the word in that it violates the law.  The punishment for criminal contempt of court is punitive.

Washington, DC

There are three forms of criminal contempt of court in D.C.:  (1) violation of any court order, (2) violation of conditions of release, and (3) contempt in presence of court.

In order to secure a conviction for violating any court order, the government must prove that: (1) the court issued an order, (2) the order was clear and specific, (3) the defendant knew of the order, and (4) the defendant violated the order voluntarily and on purpose, not by mistake or accident.  Violating a civil protection order, for example, would fall under this category.

There are five elements to the criminal offense of violation of the conditions of release:  (1) the court issued an order prescribing conditions of release, (2) the order was in writing, (3) the order was sufficiently clear and specific, (4) the defendant knew of the order, and (5) the defendant violated the order voluntarily and on purpose, not by mistake or accident.

Finally, there are three elements to the criminal offense of contempt in the presence of court.  The government must prove:  (1) the defendant engaged in conduct in or near the court, (2) the defendant’s conduct interfered with the orderly administration of justice, and (3) the defendant willfully or intentionally attempted to show disrespect for the court.  D.C. Code §§ 11-944, 23-1329, 16-1005.

Virginia

Distinguishing between direct and indirect contempt, Virginia defines criminal contempt of court as “an act of disrespect of the court or its process, or an act that tends to impede, embarrass, or obstruct the court in the discharge of its duties.  It is disobedience of any lawful command of the court, or conduct that despises or scorns the authority, justice, or dignity of the court.”

“Indirect contempt” of court is defined as an act or omission that occurs in the presence of the court and that is observed by the court.  “Indirect contempt” is defined as either an act or omission that is not committed in the presence of the court or as one that is committed in the presence of the court but is not observed by the court.

The punishment for criminal contempt of court in Virginia is imprisonment for up to 6 months and/or a maximum fine of $500. Virginia Criminal Code § 18.2-456.  Virginia Criminal Code § 18.2-457.  Virginia Code § 19.2-11.