Contempt of court is disruptive behavior or the violation of a court order. It can happen in civil cases and criminal cases. It can also happen inside the courtroom or outside of it. The penalties for contempt of court include fines and jail time.
Contempt is defined at Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(a) 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.
- The trial judge orders Claire to stop interrupting. Claire interrupts again. The judge holds her in contempt of court.
- The court orders Paul to pay $400 per month in child support. Paul has the money, but refuses to pay.
There are several legal defenses to a contempt of court motion. Some of the most common include:
- The court order was not valid,
- You were unaware of the court order, and
- You could not abide by the court order.
The penalties for being found in contempt of court vary. Judges can send violators to jail. They can also issue fines for being in contempt of court. Finally, they can warn violators to comply with a court order or face future punishment.
The penalties for being found in contempt of court can be serious. They can also prejudice the court against your case.
In this article, our Colorado criminal defense attorneys will explain:
- 1. What is contempt of court?
- 1.1. What is a court order?
- 1.2. The court order has to be valid
- 1.3. A knowing violation of a court order
- 1.4. Direct and indirect contempt of court
- 1.5. What is disruptive conduct?
- 2. Legal defenses to a contempt of court charge
- 2.1. The court order was invalid
- 2.2. You did not know about the court order
- 2.3. You could not comply with the court order
- 3. Potential penalties for contempt of court in Colorado
- 4. Offenses that are related to contempt of court
1. What is contempt of court?
Contempt of court is defined by Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(a). It includes a knowing violation of a valid court order. It is also includes disruptive conduct that obstructs justice.
1.1. What is a court order?
Court orders are issued in every case. Some of them involve conduct in the courtroom. Most of them involve obligations outside of the courtroom. All of them are created or signed by a judge. They legally bind the subject of the court order.
Some common examples of court orders include:
- Restraining and protection orders (CRS 13-14-102),
- Arrest warrants,
- Orders of child support or child custody,
- Rulings in civil lawsuits,
- Court dates, and
- Divorce decrees.
Violating the terms of these orders can lead to a judge holding you in contempt.
1.2. The court order has to be valid
Only court orders that are valid can be punished with contempt of court.
Court orders can be invalid if:
- They are issued by a court that does not have jurisdiction to hear the case,
- The order was not served properly,1 or
- The judge did not have the power to issue the order.
1.3. A knowing violation of a court order
A contempt of court order can only follow knowing violations of a court order. Judges should not hold you in contempt for accidentally violating a court order. You cannot be held in contempt of a court order you did not know about.
1.4. Direct and indirect contempt of court
Conduct can be either direct or indirect contempt of court.
Direct contempt of court is conduct that happens in the presence of the judge.2 In these cases, contempt can happen very quickly.3 Direct contempt often involves disruptive behavior. The judge can hold you in contempt without a hearing if the record shows you were being disruptive.4
Indirect contempt of court is conduct that happens outside the presence of the judge.5 Conduct that happened inside the courtroom can still be out of the presence of the judge if the judge did not see or hear it.6 Indirect contempt cases need to have a hearing before penalties can be issued.
1.5. What is disruptive conduct?
Disruptive conduct is anything that significantly interferes with the court process. Courts have long been given wide discretion to define what is disruptive.7 Examples of disruptive conduct include:
- Refusing to answer grand jury questions,8 and
- Insinuating that the judge has been bribed.9
In the contempt ruling, the judge has to support the contempt order with facts.10
2. Legal defenses to a contempt of court charge
You can raise legal defenses if you have been accused of contempt. Some of the most common defenses include:
- The court order was invalid,
- You were unaware of the court order, and
- You could not comply with the court order.
2.1. The court order was invalid
You can defend against a charge of contempt of court by attacking the court order that you are accused of violating.
To be effective, court orders have to meet certain requirements to be authentic and effective. If they fail in any way, the order can be invalid. Violating an invalid order cannot lead to contempt.
2.2. You did not know about the court order
You can only be held in contempt for knowingly violating a court order. If you were unaware of the court order, you cannot be held in contempt for not complying with it.
This defense is more common than you would think. Some court orders are not properly served. If you were not served with a court order, then you did not receive it. Without receiving the court order, it would unfair to demand you comply with it.
2.3. You could not comply with the court order
If can also defend with evidence that you could not comply with the court order, even if you wanted to.
This defense is common in child support cases. Courts often hold people in contempt for failing to pay child support. Providing evidence that you do not have enough money to meet your child support obligations can be a strong defense.
3. Potential penalties for contempt of court in Colorado
Judges are given wide discretion when they fashion a penalty for contempt of court. Those penalties have to be to remedy the repercussions of the contempt or to punish the person in contempt.
The possible penalties for contempt of court are:
- Jail time,
- Fines, and
- Attorney's fees.11
The court has to clearly state whether a contempt order is remedial or punitive.12 In order for the contempt to be punitive, the conduct had to have been willful.13
3.1. Remedial orders of contempt
Contempt orders that are remedial aim to enforce the original court order and remedy noncompliance.14 Remedial contempt orders have to state how the contempt charge can be cleared. The penalties for not clearing the contempt charge can include:
- Fines or jail time until the performance of the original court order,
- Costs of the contempt motion, and
- Attorney's fees for the contempt motion.15
When the contempt order is remedial, the attorney's fees and fines do not depend on your ability to pay them.16 Those attorney's fees can include the costs of appealing the finding of contempt.17
3.2. Punitive court orders of contempt
Punitive contempt orders are issued to punish people for bad behavior in the court process.18 This is a high standard. Judges try to avoid issuing punitive penalties for contempt of court.19
The judge can appoint a prosecutor to pursue punitive contempt orders. The person accused of contempt has a right to a lawyer in the contempt proceeding. They also have the right to have their contempt case heard by another judge.20
The potential penalties for a punitive order of contempt of court are:
- Fines, and
- Up to 6 months in jail.21
The maximum jail sentence can increase if you had a right to a jury trial for the contempt charge. However, to issue any jail time, the court has to find that you could have complied with the court order.22
4. Offenses that are related to contempt of court
Some offenses are related to contempt of court. Many of these are court orders that can lead to contempt charges.
4.1. Failure to pay child support
Child support comes from a court order. Failure to pay child support can lead to being held in contempt.
4.2. Violating a restraining order
Restraining orders are also court orders. Breaking its terms can lead to a criminal charge of violating a restraining order. A judge can hold you in contempt for breaking the court order.
Call us for help…
If a judge has accused you of being in contempt of court, a lawyer can help. Our criminal defense attorneys protect people in Colorado during contempt proceedings. Call us today or contact us online to get started on your defense. For cases in California or Nevada, please see our pages on Penal Code 166 PC - contempt of court in California or NRS 199.340 Contempt of court in Nevada.
Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(a)(2).
People v. Lucero, Supra.
Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(a)(3).
See Hughes v. People, 5 Colo. 436 (Colo. 1880).
People v. Lucero, Supra
Losavio v. District Court, Supra.
Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(d), Blank v. District Court, 543 P.2d 1255 (Colo. 1975) (because Rule 107(d) “precisely delineates the penalties to be assessed for the purpose of vindicating the dignity of the court, the only remedies available are a fine or imprisonment.” Therefore, suspending alimony payments until the court order was complied with violated the rules on contempt), and Renner v. Williams, 344 P.2d 966 (1959) (making a temporary restraining order a permanent restraining order as contempt for violating it is improper).
Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(d)(2) and In re Weisbart, 564 P.2d 961 (1977).
Shapiro v. Shapiro, Supra.
Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 107(d)(1).