California Penal Code 166 PC prohibits contempt of court. This includes such behaviors as
- being noisy or disruptive while court is in session,
- refusing to be sworn in as a witness, or
- disobeying lawful court orders.
Contempt of court is a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to 6 months in jail.
A defendant may contest a finding of contempt by asserting a legal defense. Common defenses include showing that
- any violation of a court order was not done willfully,
- there was no disorderly conduct, and/or
- the defendant is being falsely accused.
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 lawyers will answer the following key questions in this article:
- 1. When is contempt of court a crime?
- 2. Are there legal defenses?
- 3. What are the 166 PC penalties?
- 4. Are there immigration consequences?
- 5. Can a person get a conviction expunged?
- 6. Does a conviction affect gun rights?
- 7. Are there similar crimes a defendant could be charged with?
1. When is contempt of court a crime?
Penal Code 166 PC 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 / a breach of the peace / taunting the court clerk),
- willfully disobeying a lawful written order of the court,
- 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,
- willful disobedience of the terms of a lawful injunction, and
- violation of a protective order (stay away 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 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:
- a judge issued a legal order,
- the accused knew about the order,
- the accused had the ability to comply with the order, yet
- 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 valid court order, and that
- he had the opportunity to read a copy of the order.4
Note that both:
- adults, and
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:
- no willful violation of a court order,
- no disorderly conduct, and/or
- falsely accused.
The district attorney has the burden of proof to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant violated PC 166.
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 this section.
This means it is a defense for an accused to say that he/she did not disobey an order on purpose.
Example: A superior 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 the statute.
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.
3. What are the 166 PC penalties?
A violation of PC 166 is typically a misdemeanor.
A criminal contempt action is punishable by:
- custody in county jail (not state prison) for up to six months, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.6
It may be possible to do community service in lieu of the fine.
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.
3.1. Felony violations of a court order under PC 166(c)(4)
A second or subsequent restraining order violation can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony if:
- the prior violation was within 7 years, and
- the violation involved an act of violence or a credible threat of violence, and
- the restraining order was related to domestic violence, elder or dependent abuse, or sexual injury of a child
As a misdemeanor, the penalties include up to one year in jail. As a felony, penalties include either:
- 16 months in state prison,
- 2 years in state prison, or
- 3 years in state prison
Note that crimes that can be a misdemeanor or a felony are called wobblers.
4. Are there immigration consequences?
A conviction under 166 PC will generally not have any negative immigration consequences.
Some California crimes result in a non-citizen defendant being either:
Contempt 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/she successfully completes:
- every condition of probation, or
- his/her 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 similar crimes a defendant could be charged with?
There are three crimes related to contempt cases. These are:
- violating a restraining order – PC 273.6,
- stalking – PC 646.9, and
- 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 criminal law statute that defines the crime of stalking. This section makes it a crime for a person to:
- harass, and
another person to the point that the other person fears for his/her safety.
- 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 166 PC. An act is done willfully when done willingly or on purpose.
For additional help…
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For information on contempt of court charges in Nevada and Colorado, please see our articles on:
- California Penal Code section 166 PC. The language of the section states that:166. (a) Except as provided in subdivisions (b), (c), and (d), 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.
(2) Behavior specified in paragraph (1) that is committed in the presence of a referee, while actually engaged in a trial or hearing, pursuant to the order of a court, or in the presence of a jury while actually sitting for the trial of a cause, or upon an inquest or other proceeding authorized by law.
(3) A breach of the peace, noise, or other disturbance directly tending to interrupt the proceedings of the court.
(4) Willful disobedience of the terms, as written, of a process or court order or out-of-state court order, lawfully issued by a court, including orders pending trial.
(5) Resistance willfully offered by a person to the lawful order or process of a court.
(6) The contumacious and unlawful refusal of a person to be sworn as a witness or, when so sworn, the like refusal to answer a material question.
(7) The publication of a false or grossly inaccurate report of the proceedings of a court.
(8) Presenting to a court having power to pass sentence upon a prisoner under conviction, or to a member of the court, an affidavit, testimony, or representation of any kind, verbal or written, in aggravation or mitigation of the punishment to be imposed upon the prisoner, except as provided in this code.
(9) Willful disobedience of the terms of an injunction that restrains the activities of a criminal street gang or any of its members, lawfully issued by a court, including an order pending trial.
(b) (1) A person who is guilty of contempt of court under paragraph (4) of subdivision (a) by willfully contacting a victim by telephone or mail, social media, electronic communication, or electronic communication device, or directly, and who has been previously convicted of a violation of Section 646.9 shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, by a fine of no more than five thousand dollars ($5,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment.
(2) For the purposes of sentencing under this subdivision, each contact shall constitute a separate violation of this subdivision.
(3) The present incarceration of a person who makes contact with a victim in violation of paragraph (1) is not a defense to a violation of this subdivision.
(4) For purposes of this subdivision, the following definitions shall apply:
(A) “Social media” has the same definition as in Section 632.01.
(B) “Electronic communication” has the same definition as in Section 646.9.
(C) “Electronic communication device” has the same definition as in Section 646.9.
(c) (1) Notwithstanding paragraph (4) of subdivision (a), a willful and knowing violation of a protective order or stay-away court order described as follows shall constitute contempt of court, a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine:
(A) An order issued pursuant to Section 136.2.
(B) An order issued pursuant to paragraph (2) of subdivision (a) of Section 1203.097.
(C) An order issued after a conviction in a criminal proceeding involving elder or dependent adult abuse, as defined in Section 368.
(D) An order issued pursuant to Section 1201.3.
(E) An order described in paragraph (3).
(F) An order issued pursuant to subdivision (j) of Section 273.5.
(2) If a violation of paragraph (1) results in a physical injury, the person shall be imprisoned in a county jail for at least 48 hours, whether a fine or imprisonment is imposed, or the sentence is suspended.
(3) Paragraphs (1) and (2) apply to the following court orders:
(A) An order issued pursuant to Section 6320 or 6389 of the Family Code.
(B) An order excluding one party from the family dwelling or from the dwelling of the other.
(C) An order enjoining a party from specified behavior that the court determined was necessary to effectuate the orders described in paragraph (1).
(4) A second or subsequent conviction for a violation of an order described in paragraph (1) occurring within seven years of a prior conviction for a violation of any of those orders and involving an act of violence or “a credible threat” of violence, as provided in subdivision (c) of Section 139, is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or in the state prison for 16 months or two or three years.
(5) The prosecuting agency of each county shall have the primary responsibility for the enforcement of the orders described in paragraph (1).
(d) (1) A person who owns, possesses, purchases, or receives a firearm knowing that person is prohibited from doing so by the provisions of a protective order as defined in Section 136.2 of this code, Section 6218 of the Family Code, or Section 527.6 or 527.8 of the Code of Civil Procedure, shall be punished under Section 29825.
(2) A person subject to a protective order described in paragraph (1) shall not be prosecuted under this section for owning, possessing, purchasing, or receiving a firearm to the extent that firearm is granted an exemption pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 6389 of the Family Code.
(e) (1) If probation is granted upon conviction of a violation of subdivision (c), the court shall impose probation consistent with Section 1203.097.
(2) If probation is granted upon conviction of a violation of subdivision (c), the conditions of probation may include, in lieu of a fine, one or both of the following requirements:
(A) That the defendant make payments to a domestic violence shelter-based program up to a maximum of one thousand dollars ($1,000).
(B) That the defendant provide restitution to reimburse the victim for reasonable costs of counseling and other reasonable expenses that the court finds are the direct result of the defendant’s offense.
(3) For an order to pay a fine, make payments to a domestic violence shelter-based program, or pay restitution as a condition of probation under this subdivision or subdivision (c), the court shall make a determination of the defendant’s ability to pay. An order to make payments to a domestic violence shelter-based program, shall not be made if it would impair the ability of the defendant to pay direct restitution to the victim or court-ordered child support.
(4) If the injury to a married person is caused, in whole or in part, by the criminal acts of the person’s spouse in violation of subdivision (c), the community property shall not be used to discharge the liability of the offending spouse for restitution to the injured spouse required by Section 1203.04, as operative on or before August 2, 1995, or Section 1202.4, or to a shelter for costs with regard to the injured spouse and dependents required by this subdivision, until all separate property of the offending spouse is exhausted.
(5) A person violating an order described in subdivision (c) may be punished for any substantive offenses described under Section 136.1 or 646.9. A finding of contempt shall not be a bar to prosecution for a violation of Section 136.1 or 646.9. However, a person held in contempt for a violation of subdivision (c) shall be entitled to credit for any punishment imposed as a result of that violation against a sentence imposed upon conviction of an offense described in Section 136.1 or 646.9. A conviction or acquittal for a substantive offense under Section 136.1 or 646.9 shall be a bar to a subsequent punishment for contempt arising out of the same act. (Amended by Stats. 2021, Ch. 704, Sec. 1. (AB 764) Effective January 1, 2022.)
- 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. See also 166.5 PC.
- CALCRIM No. 2701.
- See same. See also People v. Saffell (1946) 74 Cal.App.2d Supp.
- In re Orlando C. (2010) 186 Cal.App.4th 1184.
- Penal Code 19 PC.
- Penal Code 166 PC.