Contempt is defined as conduct that obstructs or tends to obstruct the proper administration of justice. Contempt also includes an act that constitutes disrespectful conduct towards a court. In order to constitute contempt, the act itself must be disrespectful. A person’s intent or purpose is not relevant. The fact that the conduct may be irritating to the court does not constitute contempt.
Contempt may be civil or criminal. Civil contempt is remedial and coercive. Criminal contempt is punitive. Criminal contempt imposes an unconditional sentence for purposes of punishment or deterrence. Criminal contempt is punishment for a completed act that affronts the dignity and the authority of a court or for an act that has been prohibited by the court.
A person is guilty of direct contempt when he or she commits a contemptuous act in the presence of a court. The court has direct knowledge of the act that constitutes the contempt. The words “in the presence of a court” do not mean in the immediate presence of a trial judge. The court is present whenever the trial judge, the courtroom, the jury, or the jury room is conducting business. Examples of direct contempt include outbursts in the courtroom or a physical altercation in the courtroom or outside the door of the courtroom.
A person is guilty of indirect contempt when he or she commits a contemptuous act outside the presence of a court. Indirect contempt must be proven by testimony or by the production of evidence. Examples of indirect contempt include a failure to appear in court or a failure to comply with the orders of the court.
Attorneys and non-attorneys are subject to punishment for contempt. An attorney is guilty of contempt if he or she obstructs the administration or justice or if he or she engages in disrespectful conduct towards a court. Although an attorney has a right to be zealous in his or her representation of a client, he or she is not entitled to act in a contemptuous manner towards the court. Improper actions by an attorney are normally punished by contempt only if the attorney interferes with the administration of justice. Comments and remarks that are made to the court by an attorney are normally not punished by contempt unless the comments and remarks are extremely disrespectful. Inaction on the part of an attorney, such as the failure to obey an order of a court or the failure to appear in court, may also be punished by contempt. Non-attorneys are also subject to punishment for contempt if they obstruct the administration of justice or if they engage in disrespectful acts.
Criminal contempt is normally punished in accordance with the type of court in which the contempt has occurred. Contempt of a justice of the peace court or a municipal court may only be punished by a fine and a few days in jail. Contempt of a county or a circuit court may be punished by a larger fine and a longer jail sentence.