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Contempt of court

Often people hear the term, “contempt of court” and wonder what that means in relation to a legal proceeding.  Contempt of court is a serious matter that, depending on the circumstances, could jeopardize your case or subject you to fines or even jail time! If you have been threatened with charge of contempt of court by an opposing party or a judge, it is vital that you understand your rights and have an experienced attorney to defend you.  If you need legal assistance, please contact the Ron Aslam Law Office at (502) 581-1676 for a free consultation.

In Kentucky, courts possess the inherent authority to punish a person for contempt.  Crowder v. Reardon, 293 S.W.3d 445, 450 (Ky. App. 2009). There are two types of contempt of court: civil contempt and criminal contempt.  Id. Civil contempt occurs when a person fails to comply with an order of the court.  Id.  A court has nearly unfettered discretion to compel compliance with its orders including the imposition of sanctions or fines or even jail time so long as the punishment is reasonably related to the gravity of the offense.  Meyers v. Petrie, 233 S.W.3d 212, 216 (Ky. App. 2007).  Under the separation of powers doctrine, the legislature cannot make laws that would materially limit a court’s contempt powers. Norton v. Commonwealth, 37 S.W.3d 750, 755 (Ky. 2001).  Nevertheless, contempt of court is considered to be the equivalent of a misdemeanor offense.  Id. at 754.  However, a court cannot impose a fine of greater than $500 nor impose a sentence of more than 6 months of imprisonment without the intervention of a jury trial under constitutional due process protections. Vaughn v. Asbury, 726 S.W.2d 315, 317 (Ky. App. 1987).  With civil contempt, it is said that the contemptuous one carries “the keys to the jail” in his or her pocket, because the contemptuous one is entitled to immediate release upon compliance with the court’s order.  Crowder, 293 S.W.3d at 450.

By contrast, criminal contempt is an action taken to disrupt or defy the authority and dignity of the court.  Commonwealth v. Burge, 947 S.W.2d 805, 808 (Ky. 1996).  While the purpose of punishment for civil contempt is to compel compliance with an order of the court, the purpose of criminal contempt is to punish a person for defying or disrupting the court proceedings. Id.  Criminal contempt can be direct or indirect.  Id.  Direct criminal contempt takes place in the presence of the court and may be punished summarily within the appropriate penalty range. Id. As with civil contempt, a judge has the discretion to punish criminal contempt through the imposition of a fine or jail time, but any sentence beyond a $500 fine and/or 6 months of imprisonment requires a finding by a jury. Indirect criminal contempt takes place outside the presence of the court and may only be punished after the court has conducted a hearing that comports with due process. Id.  Classic examples of criminal contempt would be the making of derogatory comments about the judge or the judge’s rulings while in the courtroom or fighting in the courthouse. See Mayberry v. Pennsylvania, 400 U.S. 455, 91 S. Ct. 499, 27 L. Ed. 2d 532 (1971); In re Terry, 128 U.S. 289, 9 S. Ct. 77, 32 L. Ed. 405 (1888).

In conclusion, whether charged with civil or criminal contempt, you could be facing a fine of up to $500 and a sentence of 6 months in jail for each contemptuous act and even more time if the judge is angry enough to summon a jury. If you have been charged with contempt, you could be facing serious penalties. Attorney Ron Aslam has the skill and experience to help you avoid a finding of contempt.  Call Louisville criminal defense attorney Ron Aslam today at (502) 581-1676 today to begin the process of defending your rights.