Penal Code 166 PC – California Contempt of Court Laws


Penal Code 166 PC is the California statute that defines the offense of “contempt of court.” A person commits this crime if he engages in any behavior that is disrespectful to the court process.

This code section states:

“a person guilty of any of the following contempts of court is guilty of a misdemeanor: (1) Disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior committed during the sitting of a court of justice, in the immediate view and presence of the court, and directly tending to interrupt its proceedings or to impair the respect due to its authority.”

Examples:

Defenses

A defendant can contest a charge under this statute with a legal defense. Common defenses include:

  • no willful violation of a court order,
  • no “disorderly conduct,” and/or
  • falsely accused.

Penalties

Most violations of these laws are misdemeanors. This is opposed to a felony charge or an infraction.

The offense is punishable by:

  • custody in county jail for up to six months, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $1,000.

A judge can award misdemeanor (or summary) probation in lieu of jail time.

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

contempt of court judge not happy
Penal Code 166 sets forth specific conduct that constitutes “contempt of court.”

1. When is contempt of court a crime?

Penal Code 166 sets forth specific conduct that constitutes “contempt of court.” Examples of illegal conduct are:

  • engaging in disrespectful behavior in a court proceeding (e.g. being loud),
  • willfully disobeying a lawful court order,
  • refusing to be sworn in as a witness,
  • while serving as a witness, refusing to answer any material question when there is no legal exception,
  • publishing a false account of court proceedings,
  • willfully disobeying the terms of a lawful injunction, and
  • violating a protective order involving:

Note that “willfully,” as used above, means when a person commits an act:

  • willingly, or
  • on purpose.2

While this statute outlines a number of criminal behaviors, the most common PC 166 violation is disobeying a court order.

1.1. Disobeying a court order

A prosecutor must prove the following to convict a person of contempt of court for violating a court order:

  1. a judge issued a legal order,
  2. the accused knew about the order,
  3. the accused had the ability to comply with the order, yet
  4. the defendant willfully failed to do so.3

As to a defendant knowing of a court order, a prosecutor must prove that:

  • the defendant knew of the court order, and that
  • he had the opportunity to read the order.4

Note that both:

  • adults, and
  • minors

can be charged with violating a court order.5

2. Are there legal defenses?

A defendant can object to a contempt charge with a good legal defense.

Three common defenses are:

  1. no willful violation of a court order,
  2. no disorderly conduct, and/or
  3. falsely accused.

2.1. No willful violation of a court order

As to charges of disobeying a court order, recall that:

  • a defendant must willfully violate an order,
  • to be guilty under PC 166.

This means it is a defense for an accused to say that he did not disobey an order on purpose.

Example: A court issues a lawful order directing Mark and Kelly (two co-workers) from not interacting with one another. One evening Mark accidentally comes into contact with Kelly at a restaurant.

Here, the two parties are not guilty of contempt because there was no willful contact.

2.2. No disorderly conduct

Recall that this statute sets forth specific behaviors that constitute “disorderly conduct.” This means that:

  • a defendant can try to show his innocence by,
  • saying that his behavior did not rise to anything set forth in PC 166.

2.3. Falsely accused

False accusations are common under these laws. This is especially the case in disobeying an order matter when:

  • a relationship has gone bad, and
  • one of the parties wants to get back at the other.

It is a defense, therefore, for an accused to say that another person unjustly blamed him.

man behind bars
A violation of this law can result in a fine and/or jail time

3. What are the penalties?

A violation of these laws is typically a misdemeanor.

The crime is punishable by:

  • custody in county jail for up to six months, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $1,000.6

There are some situations though that lead to more serious penalties. Some of these include when an accused:

  • violates the terms of a domestic violence protective order,
  • violates a protective order when he has a prior stalking conviction, or
  • owns or possesses a firearm in violation of a court order.7

In the above cases, the crime is:

  • still charged as a misdemeanor, but
  • it can be punished by custody in jail for up to one year.

4. Are there immigration consequences?

A conviction under these laws will not have any negative immigration consequences.

Some California crimes result in a non-citizen defendant being either:

Example are:

PC 166 violations, however, are not these types of crimes.

5. Can a person get a conviction expunged?

A person can get an expungement if convicted of contempt of court.

A convicted party gets awarded an expungement if he successfully completes:

  • probation, or
  • his jail term (whichever is applicable).

Note that an expungement removes many of the hardships associated with a conviction.

6. Does a conviction affect gun rights?

A conviction under this statute most often does not impact a person's gun rights.

California law says that some crimes (e.g., felonies) will result in a defendant losing his right to own or possess a gun.

Contempt, though, is not one of these crimes.

7. Are there related offenses?

There are three crimes related to contempt of court. These are:

  1. violating a restraining order – PC 273.6,
  2. stalking – PC 646.9, and
  3. failure to appear – PC 1320.

7.1. Violating a restraining order – PC 273.6

Penal Code 273.6 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime to:

  • violate the terms or conditions of,
  • a restraining order (sometimes referred to as a "protective order").

Note that this is a different offense than disobeying a court order under PC 166.

7.2. Stalking – PC 646.9

Penal Code 646.9 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of stalking. This section makes it a crime for a person to:

  • follow,
  • harass, and
  • threaten

another person to the point that the other person fears for his/her safety.

Note that:

  • in addition to receiving criminal penalties,
  • a convicted stalker may be subject to a civil lawsuit brought by the alleged victim.

7.3. Failure to appear – PC 1320

Penal Code 1320 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to:

  • willfully fail to appear in court,
  • when required to do so.

The term “willful” under this statute has the same definition as used under PC 166. An act is done willfully when done willingly or on purpose.

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For information on contempt of court charges in Nevada and Colorado, please see our articles on:


Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 166 PC.

  2. CALCRIM No. 2701. Violation of Court Order: Protective Order or Stay Away. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition). See also In re Burns (1958), 161 Cal.App.2d 137; and, People v. Lara (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 102.

  3. CALCRIM No. 2701. Violation of Court Order: Protective Order or Stay Away.

  4. See same. See also People v. Saffell (1946) 74 Cal.App.2d Supp.

  5. In re Orlando C. (2010) 186 Cal.App.4th 1184.

  6. California Penal Code 19 PC.

  7. California Penal Code 166 PC.

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