Your Options When Held in Contempt of Court


Contempt of court is a determination made by a judge against someone appearing in court. A judge may elect to hold a person in criminal or civil contempt, depending on the circumstances. Your options for responding to a charge of contempt vary depending on whether the judge holds you in criminal or civil contempt.


  • A person may be held in contempt of court when he or she willfully defies, disrespects or impedes a court of law. The decision to hold someone in contempt is entirely up to the judge of that court. A judge may hold someone in either criminal or civil contempt of court. This determination is also left to the judge's discretion. In other words, if the judge believes that you are disrespecting or hindering the court (including the judge himself), he may find you in contempt of court in whichever way he sees fit.

Criminal Contempt

  • Someone may be held in criminal contempt of court for punitive reasons. This means that the purpose of charging someone with criminal contempt is to punish her behavior and to deter that behavior in the future. Criminal contempt is a separate criminal charge unrelated to the case before the court. This means that the contempt charge will not go away when the original charge is disposed of. A defendant to criminal contempt of court must answer the charges in a separate proceeding. As in any criminal case, someone charged with criminal contempt of court has a right to defend herself and must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Options to respond to criminal contempt of court include pleading guilty, having a trial before a jury or having a trial before a judge.

Civil Contempt

  • Civil contempt differs from criminal contempt in that it is not punitive. Instead, a person is held in civil contempt to force that him to do something, usually to obey a court order. These court orders have two purposes. One is to restore the party injured by the failure to comply with a court order. For example, if someone fails to pay court-ordered child support, that person may be found in civil contempt. The other reason is to move along court proceedings. For example, if someone is ordered to produce documents for the opposing side in a court case, he must produce them before the case can proceed. Failing to do so may result in contempt. Your rights in civil contempt are much more limited than in criminal contempt. For example, there is no right to a jury trial. Generally, the only way to get out of civil contempt of court is to comply with the court order. However, unlike criminal contempt, civil contempt ends when the present case is disposed of.


  • Both criminal and civil contempt of court may result in imprisonment. Someone charged with criminal contempt has a right to a timely trial, but someone found in civil contempt may be held indefinitely until he complies with the court order that has been violated. However, someone held in civil contempt will not have a criminal record showing contempt even after being held in jail, while someone found guilty of criminal contempt will.


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