What Is Contempt of Court?

Using what’s known as a bench warrant, a judge has the power to have a person charged and arrested for a crime. One of the most commonly issued bench warrants is for contempt of court, which results in fines at minimum, and sometimes jail time.

The severity of the punishment depends on which type of contempt a person is charged with, as there are two main types of contempt—indirect and direct—and for each of those, there is a criminal and civil form of contempt.

Indirect contempt of court

Indirect contempt of court is when a warrant for contempt is issued for something a person has done away from the courtroom. This includes things like refusing to pay child support, refusing to show up to court-ordered counseling, failure to provide evidence when it has been ordered by subpoena or trying to talk or communicate digitally with members of a jury. Indirect contempt tends to be issued for fairly serious offenses, for the actual refusal or failure to comply with law, whereas direct contempt, which we’ll discuss next, is often issued for rude or lewd behavior.

Direct contempt of court

When the offending behavior occurs within a courtroom, it’s considered direct contempt of court. The most common form of direct contempt is for rude, offensive, disrespectful, defiant or abusive behavior that occurs in court, directed toward a judge, the jury, or the lawyers present. Additionally, a defendant may refuse to cooperate with questioning. Contempt is issued in these cases to enforce behavioral norms, or to ensure the court receives cooperation and reliable evidence from the defendant. In these cases, it’s an important tool for helping the court function smoothly.

Criminal contempt of court

The main difference between civil and criminal contempt of court is what type of court case the contempt occurs during. If someone is found in contempt in a criminal case, they’re held in criminal contempt of court. In these cases, the consequences are usually more significant, often jail time, as they are intended to regain the compliance and cooperation of the person being held in contempt. The punishment is essentially motivation to ensure future cooperation.

Civil contempt of court

Civil contempt, as mentioned earlier, occurs in civil court. This typically includes family law, such as divorce and custody proceedings. Civil contempt can actually rise to the level of a criminal charge (though the name makes it sound more innocuous), such as when someone tries to hide funds or assets in a divorce proceeding.

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