In Colorado, you can be found to be in contempt of court if you violate a court order or you willfully disrupt the ability of the court to carry out its functions. Judges have broad discretion to impose penalties that can include fines and up to six months of jail time.
Here are three key things to know:
- You can be held in contempt in civil or criminal court cases.
- Commonly, contempt actions arise in family court matters involving contested divorce, spousal support, child support, and child custody/visitation.
- Holding people in contempt is a way for judges to curb unlawful or uncooperative behavior inside and outside the courtroom.
Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(a) defines contempt as:
“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.”
In this article, our Denver Colorado criminal defense attorneys will explain:
- 1. What is contempt of court in Colorado?
- 2. How is direct contempt different from indirect contempt?
- 3. What are the penalties?
- 4. How are proceedings brought?
- 5. What are the legal defenses?
There are two situations where courts find you in contempt:
- You knowingly violate a valid judicial order; or
- You behave in a disruptive manner that obstructs justice.
1.1. Violation of a judicial order
Deliberately defying a court order is typically called “civil contempt.”1 Common examples of court orders include:
1.2. Disruptive conduct
Willfully disrupting judicial proceedings is typically called “criminal contempt.”
Disruptive conduct is anything that significantly interferes with the judicial process (“the dignity of the court”) or obstructs the court’s ability to carry out its duties.2 Examples include:
- Speaking out of turn during a court hearing
- Refusing to answer grand jury questions3
- Insinuating that the judge has been bribed4
When a judge issues a contempt order for disruptive conduct, it has to spell out the facts of what you did wrong.5
Direct contempt happens in the presence of the judge, such as screaming at the clerk in open court.6
In these cases, courts can resolve the matter quickly and impose punishment and without a hearing.7 The record just needs to show you were being disruptive.8
Indirect contempt is conduct that happens outside the presence of the judge.9 (Conduct that happens inside the courtroom can still be out of the judge’s presence if the judge does not see or hear it.10)
Indirect contempt cases require a hearing before the judge can issue penalties.
Colorado judges have broad discretion to decide penalties for contempt of court.11 The judge has to clearly state whether the punishment is remedial or punitive.12
3.1. Remedial penalties
Remedial contempt punishments are meant to enforce the original court demand that you allegedly violated.13 The order states how you can clear the contempt charge. The penalties for not clearing the contempt charge can include:
- Fines or jail time until you perform the original judicial demand,
- Court costs, and
- Attorney’s fees14
3.2. Punitive penalties
Punitive contempt orders are issued to punish you for bad behavior in the judicial process.15 Your conduct had to have been willful.16
The judge can appoint a prosecutor to pursue these cases. You have a right to a lawyer in these proceedings as well as the right to have the case heard by another judge.17
In general, penalties are:
- Up to 6 months in jail, and
- Possibly other punitive sanctions 18
If you are allegedly disrupting judicial proceedings, the judge can usually issue a contempt order right then and there. There does not need to be another hearing as long as the judge witnesses the disruption.
If you are allegedly violating a court order such as failing to pay child support, the injured party would file a “contempt of court” citation against you by bringing the following two completed documents to the court:
- Motion & Affidavit for Citation for Contempt of Court (Form JDF 1816); and
- Order to Issue Citation and Citation to Show Cause (JDF 1817)
After reviewing the forms, the court clerk will schedule a contempt hearing. The injured party (“complainant”) would need to inform you about the date and time.
You (and your attorney) are legally obligated to appear for the hearing to explain why the court should not hold you in contempt. If you fail to appear at this hearing, the judge will probably issue a bench warrant for your arrest.
Three typical arguments to fight contempt allegations in Colorado are as follows:
5.1. The court order was invalid
An order can be invalid if:
- The issuing court does not have jurisdiction to hear the case,
- The order was not served properly,
- The judge did not have the power to issue the order,
- The order has expired, or
- The terms in the order are unlawful
Violating an invalid order is not illegal. If it can be shown the order is void, then charges cannot apply.
5.2. You did not know about the judicial demand
Nothing unlawful occurs when you unknowingly violate an order. If you are not served an order correctly, then you do not receive it and are under no obligation to follow it.
5.3. You were unable to comply with the judge’s demands
Punishment is not appropriate in situations where you are physically unable to comply with an order.
This defense is common in child support cases: If the non-custodial parent provides evidence they do not have the means to pay, no violation occurred.
In cases where you have a reasonable explanation for noncompliance and demonstrate a commitment to abide by the court order in the future, judges may suspend any contempt punishments on the condition you comply as soon as you are able.
- Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 107.
- See Hughes v. People, 5 Colo. 436 (Colo. 1880)
- People v. Lucero, 584 P.2d 1208 (Colo. 1978).
- Losavio v. District Court, 512 P.2d 266 (Colo. 1973).
- Handler v. Gordon, 120 P.2d 205 (Colo. 1941).
- Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(a)(2).
- People v. Lucero, supra.
- Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(a)(3).
- Losavio v. District Court, supra.
- Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(d), Blank v. District Court, 543 P.2d 1255 (Colo. 1975); Renner v. Williams, 344 P.2d 966 (1959).
- People ex rel. Public Utilities Commission v. Entrup, 143 P.3d 1120 (Colo. App. 2006).
- Shapiro v. Shapiro, 175 P.2d 387 (Colo. 1946).
- Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(d)(2); In re Weisbart, 564 P.2d 961 (1977).
- Shapiro v. Shapiro, 175 P.2d 387 (Colo. 1946).
- Harvey v. Harvey, 384 P.2d 265 (Colo. 1963); In re Marriage of Cyr and Kay, 186 P.3d 88 (Colo. App. 2008).
- Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(d)(1).
- People v. Zamora, 665 P.2d 153 (Colo. App. 1983).