If you’ve ever watched a television show or movie that takes place in a courtroom, then you’ve probably heard the term “contempt of court.” However, even though most of us have heard the term, not everyone knows what it means or how it works in an actual courtroom setting.
NRS 199.340 states:
Every person who shall commit a contempt of court of any one of the following kinds shall be guilty of a misdemeanor:
- Disorderly, contemptuous or insolent behavior committed during the sitting of the court, in its immediate view and presence, and directly tending to interrupt its proceedings or to impair the respect due to its authority;
- Behavior of like character in the presence of a referee, while actually engaged in a trial or hearing pursuant to an order of court, or in the presence of a jury while actually sitting in the trial of a cause or upon an inquest or other proceeding authorized by law;
- Breech of the peace, noise or other disturbance directly tending to interrupt the proceedings of a court, jury or referee;
- Willful disobedience to the lawful process or mandate of a court;
- Resistance, willfully offered, to its lawful process or mandate;
- Contumacious and unlawful refusal to be sworn as a witness or, after being sworn, to answer any legal and proper interrogatory;
- Publication of a false or grossly inaccurate report of its proceedings; or
- Assuming to be an attorney or officer of a court or acting as such without authority.
This is a convoluted statute with many parts. The easiest way to understand it is to take it piece-by-piece.
Then what does the first part mean?
The first part explains that the crime of contempt is charged as a misdemeanor, and then explains that it applies to each of the subsequent sub-parts.
So what do the sub-parts say?
The sub-parts explain all of the different types of conduct that can be considered “contempt”. As confusing as the statute may be, when each sub-part is taken alone, it is much easier to understand what “criminal contempt” is.
- The first sub-part is what most people think of when they hear “contempt of court.” Essentially, any conduct that the court feels is insolent or disrespectful is contempt when the conduct is done during a court proceeding in view of the court (usually the judge). Also, conduct that tends to interrupt court proceedings can be found to be “contempt.”
- The second sub-part refers back to the first sub-part in that it refers to “behavior of like character.” In other words, behavior like that referenced in the first sub-part. Here, though, the second sub-part refers to any ‘referee’ that is actually engaged in a trial or hearing. In this context, a ‘referee’ means any one that the court has authorized to hear the trial (usually a judge or magistrate). However, unlike the first sub-part, this section also allows for being disrespectful of the court “in the presence of a jury.” Where the first sub-part allowed for a charge of contempt when a judge feels that you are disrespecting the court, the second sub-part allows for you to be held in contempt for also being disrespectful in the presence of a jury. Please Note: The jury referenced here can be sitting for any legal proceeding; trial, hearing, inquest, indictment, etc. Also Note: This sub-part means that you can be held in contempt for taking in a loud protest outside of the courthouse, if the noise level is enough to disrupt the court.
- Sub-part three broadens the type of conduct that can lead to contempt charges by stating that any “breach of the peace, noise or other disturbance” can be the cause of contempt charges. Of course, the disturbance still has to “interrupt the proceedings of a court, jury or referee,” in order to be “contempt.” This greatly broadens the definition of what is considered contempt because it allows for conduct that is not specifically disrespectful to the court. Also, it is important to note that the disturbance referenced in sub-part 3 does not actually have to take place in the presence of a judge or other “referee.” This means that if you were to cause some kind of a disturbance of a jury deliberation, or other jury or court proceeding, that did not require the presence of a judge or “referee,” then you can still be held in contempt. Please Note: This sub-part means that you can be held in contempt for taking in a loud protest outside of the courthouse, if the noise level is enough to disrupt the court.
- The fourth sub-part should be very clear, especially if you have seen almost any courtroom television show or movie; it applies whenever someone disobeys a court order or legal process. This can happen in a number of ways, but the two most common are:
- Where the court orders, or mandates, that someone perform in a specific manner during a court proceeding (give testimony they don’t want to give, remain quiet unless they are testifying, etc.), and that person refuses to abide by the order. This is a very common scenario in courtroom dramas and will lead to the judge holding that person “in contempt of court.” This is a more immediate example of sub-part 4, where the court’s mandate can be immediately fulfilled or ignored.
- The second very common type of contempt that falls under sub-part 4 arises when the court issues an order (restraining orders or temporary protective orders are very common here), and the person who the order relates to refuses to abide by the order. The difference between this scenario and the first is that here, the order issued by the court lasts for an extended period of time, and must be obeyed for that entire time.
- Sub-part 5 is very similar to sub-part 4, but does not require actual disobedience of the court order. Sub-part 5 allows for you to be found in contempt for merely resisting a court order. Of course, even if the Court finds you in contempt for resisting a court order or mandate, those charges are often dropped as soon as you relinquish your resistance.
- Sub-part 6 is perhaps the most confusing section, but only because it starts off with a word that very few people have even heard, let alone can understand. “Contumacious” means “stubborn, rebellious, or willfully disobedient.” With that word out of the way, the rest of the section should be pretty clear: If you refuse to be sworn in as a witness, or if you refuse to answer a question after you have been sworn in, then you may be held in contempt. Please Note: Except for in very limited circumstances, you cannot be held in contempt if you have invoked your 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. However, if you have agreed to take the stand in a criminal case, and you testify during direct examination, then you may not invoke your 5th Amendment right after you have already testified about the events in question.
- Sub-part 7 refers specifically to reporting on court room or other legally authorized proceedings. However, while this sub-part is intended to apply to reporters, it does not only apply to reporters. In other words, anyone who publishes any kind of false or inaccurate report of a legal proceeding (on a blog, video blog, Facebook post, Tweet, etc.), may be found in contempt of court.
- Sub-section 8 runs in tandem with laws relating to the unauthorized practice of law. If you participate in a court proceeding while maintaining that you are an attorney, then you may be found in contempt of court. This will be in addition to any penalties you may face for the unauthorized practice of law.
Basically, so long as you abide by Court orders, and you treat the Court and its agents with respect, then you should not have to worry about contempt of court charges.
But what if I do something that accidentally disrespects the Court?
This is a tricky area because the law does not actually require that you intended to disrespect, or show contempt towards, the Court. In fact, the only intent required is that your conduct was intentional, not that its result was intentional.
Take, for example, the above note regarding a loud protest outside the courthouse. Assume, for the sake of this example, that you were protesting a store across the street from the Courthouse. The intent of your conduct, then, would be to make noise and inform people about the store. The result, however, might be that you disturb court proceedings. Even though you had no intent to do so, you can be charged with contempt of court for the result of your actions.
However, this does not mean that you can be held in contempt of court for reasons that were outside of your control. If, in the example above, you were organizing a peaceful protest outside of the store, and the store manager decides to use air horns to drive you away, then you should not be held in contempt if those air horns disturb court proceedings. The store manager’s reaction was outside your control.
Another example may be that you are subpoenaed to testify in a trail, but on the way to the trial you are in a car accident and are unable to make it to court. Assuming that the car accident was not intentional, you should not be held in contempt for missing court.
What penalties will I be facing?
As noted in the statute above, criminal contempt is a misdemeanor and carries with it:
- Up to 6 months in jail; and/or
- Up to $1,000.00 in fines.
What are my possible defenses?
You may have already guessed some of them based on the discussion above. Some of the most common defenses are:
- No Intent – As noted above, intent can play a big part in a criminal contempt charge. If the allegedly contemptuous conduct was involuntary, or was outside your control, then you can claim that there was no intent in the conduct and that the charges should be dropped or dismissed.
- No Contempt – Judges are given a lot of leeway when it comes to charging someone with contempt of court. Consequently, it is very difficult to prove that there was no contempt, as you will have to argue that your conduct was not disrespectful, despite what the judge says. However, if you were exercising a constitutional right, as in the above example about a peaceful sit-in, then you should not be charged with contempt because your conduct was constitutionally protected. Also, because judges are given so much leeway in contempt charges, there is a wide variety of what is considered “contempt.” It may be possible that your conduct would not have been considered disrespectful in any other court room, and an experience attorney may be able to help you get the charges dropped or dismissed.
- No Conduct – This is essentially a defense of mistaken identity. If the judge, or someone else, mistakenly points to you as the offender, then you may be wrongly charged with contempt. If this was the case, then an experienced attorney should be able to get the charges against you dropped or dismissed.
Is there anything else I should know?
You should know that contempt charges can also arise out of civil suits and family law cases.
In civil suits, the contempt charges are meant less as a punishment for not doing what the Court ordered, and more as a means to compel you to follow them. The other main difference between civil contempt and criminal contempt is that civil contempt only relates to the underlying case in which it comes up. As a result, once that case ends, the civil contempt ends. Generally, you will be facing penalties of:
- Up to 25 days in jail; and/or
- Fines up to $500.00.
In family law cases, contempt is more akin to house arrest than in criminal contempt. Generally, if you have been found in contempt of a family law order, you may be fined and imprisoned, but you will likely be able to leave jail in order to go to work. However, you will be under strict supervision, any deviance outside of you going straight to work and straight back to jail may result in a criminal contempt charge.
What should I do if I’ve been charged with contempt?
As with any crime, it is important that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to discuss the specific facts of your case as well as any possible defenses that may apply.