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 6 months of jail time.
People can be held in contempt in civil or criminal court cases. Commonly, contempt actions arise in alimony or child support matters.
- A judge orders Kelly to pay child support to her ex-wife. Kelly earns enough but refuses to pay because she is dissatisfied with the parenting plan. The judge holds Kelly in contempt for violating the child support order. It does not matter if the ex-wife has enough money to get by without support or if she is protesting her lack of parenting time.
- Marlo keeps interrupting the judge during her son’s arraignment. The judge warns her to stay quiet, but Kelly continues to interrupt. The judge holds Marlo in contempt for disrupting judicial proceedings. It does not matter that Marlo is not a party to the case.
Holding people in contempt is a way for judges to curb unlawful or uncooperative behavior. And it does not matter if this behavior occurs inside or 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 people in contempt:
- A person knowingly violates a valid judicial order; or
- A person behaves in a disruptive manner that obstructs justice
1.1. Violation of a judicial order
Deliberately defying a judge is typically called “civil contempt.” Common examples of court orders include:
- Restraining and protection orders (CRS 13-14-102),
- Court’s orders of child support or child custody,
- Rulings in civil lawsuits,
- Sentencing terms in criminal lawsuits,
- Court dates, and
- Divorce decrees
Only knowing non-compliance with a judicial demand qualifies as unlawful. People who are unaware of the judicial demand cannot be held in contempt for violating it.1
1.2. Disruptive conduct
Disrupting judicial proceedings is typically called “criminal contempt.”
Disruptive conduct is anything that significantly interferes with the judicial process (“the dignity of the court”).2 Examples of disruptive conduct include:
- Speaking out of turn during a court hearing,
- Using a cell phone during court,
- Refusing to answer grand jury questions,3 or
- 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 the person did wrong.5
Direct is conduct that happens in the presence of the judge.6 It usually involves disruptive behavior.
Example: After Jeff is found guilty at trial, Jeff starts screaming about how unfair the trial was. This is direct contempt since the judge is witnessing it.
In these cases, contempt can happen very quickly.7 The judge can issue punishments without a hearing. The record just needs to show the person was being disruptive.8
Indirect 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
Example: The traffic court judge calls a brief recess and leaves the courtroom. Tony then starts yelling at the clerk about his ticket. This is indirect because the judge was not present.
Indirect contempt cases require a hearing before the judge can issue penalties.
Judges have broad discretion to decide penalties for contempt of court.11 The judge has to clearly state whether an order is remedial or punitive.12
3.1. Remedial penalties
Remedial contempt punishments are meant to enforce the original court demand the defendant violated.13 The order states how the contempt charge can be cleared. The penalties for not clearing the charge can include:
- Fines or jail time until the performance of the original judicial demand,
- Court costs, and
- Attorney’s fees14
3.2. Punitive penalties
Punitive contempt orders are issued to punish people for bad behavior in the judicial process.15 The person’s conduct had to have been willful.16
The judge can appoint a prosecutor to pursue these cases. The accused has a right to a lawyer in these proceedings. The accused also has 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 a person is disrupting judicial proceedings, the judge can usually issue an order right then and there. There does not need to be another hearing as long as the judge witnesses the disruption.
If a person is allegedly violating a court order, the injured party would file a “contempt of court” citation against that person. An example is a custodial parent filing a citation against the non-custodial parent for failing to pay child support. The injured party can request either remedial and/or punitive redress.
Then the judge will schedule a contempt hearing where both parties can present evidence on the matter. If the subject of the judicial demand fails to appear at this hearing, the judge will probably issue a bench warrant for his/her arrest.
Typical arguments to fight allegations include:
- The court order was invalid,
- The person was unaware of the judicial demand, or
- The person was unable to comply with the judge’s demands.
5.1. The court order was invalid
To be effective, orders have to meet certain requirements. If they fail in any way, the order may carry no legal weight. 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
Example: Bill must pay alimony for three years as ordered by his Colorado family law case judge. After the three years are up, his ex-wife files a citation with the court alleging that Bill has stopped making payments. But since the order expired after three years, Bill did not violate the order.
Violating an invalid order is not illegal. If it can be shown the order is void, then charges cannot apply.
5.2. The person did not know about the judicial demand
Nothing unlawful occurs when a person unknowingly violates an order.
Example: A judge issues a subpoena for a witness to appear at trial. The process server forgets to serve the witness. At trial, the judge issues a contempt order for the witness’s failure to appear. But once the witness explains there was no service, the order should be lifted.
If the subject of the order is not served correctly, then he/she does not receive it. Without receiving the order, a person is under no obligation to follow it.
5.3. The person was unable to comply with the judge’s demands
Punishment is not appropriate in situations where a person is physically unable to comply with an order.
Example: Jake is ordered to appear in Denver Municipal Court. On the way to court he is hit by a car and taken unconscious to the hospital. Jake had every intention to appear in court. So he should not be punished because forces outside his control forced him to miss court.
This defense is also common in child support cases. Courts often punish people for missing payments. But if the non-custodial parent provides evidence he/she does not have the means to pay, no violation occurred.
Also, see our article What constitutes contempt of court in Colorado?
In California? Learn about California laws (Penal Code 166 PC).
In Nevada? Learn about Nevada laws (NRS 199.340).
- 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).