Updated May 29
Penal Code 166 PC is the California statute that defines the offense of contempt of court. A person commits this crime if he or she engages in any behavior that is disrespectful to the court process. This is a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to 6 months in jail.
166 PC states that “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.”
- being loud or belligerent in court
- refusing to be sworn in as a witness during a California criminal trial
- disobeying a court order (276.3 PC)
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 166 PC is typically a misdemeanor.
A criminal contempt action is punishable by:
- custody in county jail 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.
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…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case and due process rights with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
Our attorneys serve clients throughout California, such as Los Angeles County, Torrance, Pomona, San Bernardino County, Pasadena, Orange County, San Diego, San Francisco, Rancho Cucamonga, Newport Beach, Buena Park, Riverside, Santa Ana, Glendale, Irvine, Corona del Mar, Compton, Santa Monica, Long Beach, and Sacramento. If you wish to create an attorney-client relationship, we can discuss discount rates and payment plans.
For information on contempt of court charges in Nevada and Colorado, please see our articles on:
- California Penal Code 166 PC.
- 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.
- 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.
- California Penal Code Section 166 PC.