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What constitutes "contempt of court" in Colorado?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Dec 20, 2018 | 0 Comments

Colorado courts can find a person in "contempt of court" for deliberately disobeying or disrespecting the court. The penalties depend on the case and the type of contempt.

There are two types of contempt in Colorado: Civil and criminal.

Civil contempt

Civil contempt typically refers to when a party in a case deliberately defies a court order, and this defiance harms the other party in the case. A common example is failing to pay child support in Colorado.

When a party files a "contempt of court" citation against the offending party, the court will usually schedule a court hearing so the offending party can be heard. If the offender fails to show up, the court will then issue a Colorado bench warrant for his/her arrest.

In many cases, the two parties involved can resolve a "contempt of court" case through negotiation and without any actions from the court.

Parties who file a "contempt or court" citation can request either remedial contempt and/or punitive contempt:

Remedial contempt

Remedial contempt is when the judge imposes a punishment that hopefully encourages the offending party to abide by the court's demands. This sentence ceases as soon as the offender proves he/she is in compliance with the court.

Remedial contempt penalties can include jail as well as attorney's fees and costs. But the judge may "suspend" these punishments to give the offending party a chance to finally abide by the court order. 

Remedial contempt has four elements that must be proven "by a preponderance of the evidence" in order for the offender to be sentenced:

  1. there was a legal court order,
  2. the offender knew about the court order,
  3. the offender defied the court order, and
  4. the offender has the present ability to follow with the court order

"By a preponderance of the evidence" is legalese for "more likely than not."

The ultimate goal of asking for remedial contempt is to prod the offender to comply with the original court order and move the original case along.

Punitive contempt

Punitive contempt is when a judge imposes a penalty for the purpose of punishing the offending party. Punitive attempt penalties typically include fines and/or jail but not attorney's fees.

Punitive contempt has four elements that must be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt" in order for the offender to be sentenced:

  1. there was a legal court order,
  2. the offender knew about the order,
  3. the offender had the ability to follow the court order, and
  4. the offender willfully defied the order

Punitive attempt is considered "quasi-criminal," which is why the burden of proof the injured party has to prove is "beyond a reasonable doubt." Beyond a reasonable doubt is much higher than the "by a preponderance of the evidence" standard in remedial contempt cases.

The ultimate goal of asking for punitive contempt is to make the offender suffer for defying the court and harming the other party.

Criminal contempt

Criminal contempt occurs when someone disrespects the court's authority, such as speaking out of order during court proceedings or talking back to a judge. Anyone can be held in criminal contempt, including;

  • lawyers
  • parties
  • witnesses
  • jurors
  • clerks
  • officers
  • courtroom audience members

The penalties for being held in contempt typically include jail and/or fines.


Legal References:

Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 107. Remedial and Punitive Sanctions for Contempt.
(a)  Definitions.
(1)  Contempt:  Disorderly or disruptive behavior, a breach of the peace, boisterous conduct or violent disturbance toward the court, or conduct that unreasonably interrupts the due course of judicial proceedings; behavior that obstructs the administration of justice; disobedience or resistance by any person to or interference with any lawful writ, process, or order of the court; or any other act or omission designated as contempt by the statutes or these rules.
(2)  Direct Contempt:  Contempt that the court has seen or heard and is so extreme that no warning is necessary or that has been repeated despite the court's warning to desist.
(3)  Indirect Contempt:  Contempt that occurs out of the direct sight or hearing of the court.
(4)  Punitive Sanctions for Contempt:  Punishment by unconditional fine, fixed sentence of imprisonment, or both, for conduct that is found to be offensive to the authority and dignity of the court.
(5)  Remedial Sanctions for Contempt:  Sanctions imposed to force compliance with a lawful order or to compel performance of an act within the person's power or present ability to perform.
(6)  Court:  For purposes of this rule, "court" means any judge, magistrate, commissioner, referee, or a master while performing official duties.
(b)  Direct Contempt Proceedings.  When a direct contempt is committed, it may be punished summarily. In such case an order shall be made on the record or in writing reciting the facts constituting the contempt, including a description of the person's conduct, a finding that the conduct was so extreme that no warning was necessary or the person's conduct was repeated after the court's warning to desist, and a finding that the conduct is offensive to the authority and dignity of the court. Prior to the imposition of sanctions, the person shall have the right to make a statement in mitigation.
(c)  Indirect Contempt Proceedings.  When it appears to the court by motion supported by affidavit that indirect contempt has been committed, the court may ex parte order a citation to issue to the person so charged to appear and show cause at a date, time and place designated why the person should not be punished. The citation and a copy of the motion, affidavit and order shall be served directly upon such person at least 21 days before the time designated for the person to appear. If such person fails to appear at the time so designated, and it is evident to the court that the person was properly served with copies of the motion, affidavit, order, and citation, a warrant for the person's arrest may issue to the sheriff. The warrant shall fix the date, time and place for the production of the person in court. The court shall state on the warrant the amount and kind of bond required. The person shall be discharged upon delivery to and approval by the sheriff or clerk of the bond directing the person to appear at the date, time and place designated in the warrant, and at any time to which the hearing may be continued, or pay the sum specified. If the person fails to appear at the time designated in the warrant, or at any time to which the hearing may be continued, the bond may be forfeited upon proper notice of hearing to the surety, if any, and to the extent of the damages suffered because of the contempt, the bond may be paid to the aggrieved party. If the person fails to make bond, the sheriff shall keep the person in custody subject to the order of the court.
(d)  Trial and Punishment.
(1)  Punitive Sanctions.  In an indirect contempt proceeding where punitive sanctions may be imposed, the court may appoint special counsel to prosecute the contempt action. If the judge initiates the contempt proceedings, the person shall be advised of the right to have the action heard by another judge. At the first appearance, the person shall be advised of the right to be represented by an attorney and, if indigent and if a jail sentence is contemplated, the court will appoint counsel. The maximum jail sentence shall not exceed six months unless the person has been advised of the right to a jury trial. The person shall also be advised of the right to plead either guilty or not guilty to the charges, the presumption of innocence, the right to require proof of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt, the right to present witnesses and evidence, the right to cross-examine all adverse witnesses, the right to have subpoenas issued to compel attendance of witnesses at trial, the right to remain silent, the right to testify at trial, and the right to appeal any adverse decision. The court may impose a fine or imprisonment or both if the court expressly finds that the person's conduct was offensive to the authority and dignity of the court. The person shall have the right to make a statement in mitigation prior to the imposition of sentence.
(2)  Remedial Sanctions.  In a contempt proceeding where remedial sanctions may be imposed, the court shall hear and consider the evidence for and against the person charged and it may find the person in contempt and order sanctions. The court shall enter an order in writing or on the record describing the means by which the person may purge the contempt and the sanctions that will be in effect until the contempt is purged. In all cases of indirect contempt where remedial sanctions are sought, the nature of the sanctions and remedies that may be imposed shall be described in the motion or citation. Costs and reasonable attorney's fees in connection with the contempt proceeding may be assessed in the discretion of the court. If the contempt consists of the failure to perform an act in the power of the person to perform and the court finds the person has the present ability to perform the act so ordered, the person may be fined or imprisoned until its performance.
(e)  Limitations.  The court shall not suspend any part of a punitive sanction based upon the performance or non-performance of any future acts. The court may reconsider any punitive sanction. Probation shall not be permitted as a condition of any punitive sanction. Remedial and punitive sanctions may be combined by the court, provided appropriate procedures are followed relative to each type of sanction and findings are made to support the adjudication of both types of sanctions.
(f)  Appeal.  For the purposes of appeal, an order deciding the issue of contempt and sanctions shall be final.

Robran v. Peo- ple ex rel. Smith, 173 Colo. 378, 479 P.2d 976 (1971)(No arraignment is necessary in criminal contempt proceedings which are analogous to petty offenses.)

About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).

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