Disrupting or impeding court proceedings is considered "criminal contempt" in Nevada. The penalties may include fines or even jail.
On this page, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys explain what constitutes "criminal contempt" in Nevada. Continue reading to learn the laws, defenses, and punishments.
Definition of criminal contempt of court in Nevada
A judge may find a person in criminal contempt for acting up during court or for interrupting court proceedings. Specifically, the legal definition of "criminal contempt of court" in Nevada includes any of the following actions:
- Disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior committed during the sitting of the court, in its immediate view and presence, and directly tending to interrupt its proceedings or to impair the respect due to its authority;
- Behavior of like character in the presence of a referee, while actually engaged in a trial or hearing pursuant to an order of the court, or in the presence of a jury while actually sitting in the trial of a cause or upon an inquest or other proceeding authorized by law;
- Breach of the peace, noise, or other disturbance directly tending to interrupt the proceedings of a court, jury, or referee;
- Willful disobedience to the lawful process or mandate of a court;
- Resistance, willfully offered, to its lawful process or mandate;
- Contumacious and unlawful refusal to be sworn as a witness or, after being sworn, to answer any legal and proper interrogatory;
- Publication of a false or grossly inaccurate report of its proceedings; or
- Assuming to be an attorney or officer of a court or acting as such without authority.
In short, a person may be found in contempt for an act of willful disobedience of court proceedings. And the purpose of a criminal contempt conviction is to punish that person ("the contemnor") for offending the court. Moapa criminal defense attorney Michael Becker gives an example.
Example: David is observing his son's eviction trial in Henderson Justice Court. When a prosecution witness testifies against the son, David stands up and calls the witness names. After repeated warnings from the judge to stop, David continues interrupting the testimony. The judge may then find David in criminal contempt of court for willfully disrupting court proceedings, and David would be booked at the Henderson Detention Center.
It does not matter that David is not a party, lawyer, or witness in the case. Anyone who inserts him/herself in a case faces contempt charges, including loud protesters outside a courtroom. It also does not matter in the above example that the eviction trial is a civil proceeding. A person may be found in criminal contempt in either civil or criminal cases.
Note that violating probation is not considered contempt even though probation violations are deliberate defiance of court orders. Instead, probation violations are charged separately in a Nevada probation violation hearing.
Contempt's "intent" requirement
A person may be convicted of criminal contempt even if he/she did not specifically intend to violate court procedures. All the prosecution has to prove is that the person intended to behave in a way that violated court procedures. Mesquite criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse illustrates this distinction:
Example: Jen is subpoenaed as a witness in a domestic violence case in Laughlin Justice Court. She then refuses to answer any questions on the witness stand even though she has been given blanket immunity from prosecution. Even though Jen does not mean to offend the authority of the court and just wants to protect herself, Jen could then be booked at the Laughlin Jail for contempt of court for refusing to answer any questions.
Even though Jen in the above example did not mean to break any court rules, she could still be found in criminal contempt for engaging in behavior -- refusing to testify -- that nonetheless violated court rules.
Note that a person should not be convicted of criminal contempt if he/she violated court rules by accident or for reasons out of his/her control. If Jen in the above example missed court because she got a flat tire or had to go to the ER, she should not be found in contempt.
Also, note that judges wield a lot of discretion when finding someone in criminal contempt. Some judges have a lot of patience and are lax, while others are very stern. Behavior that is found contemptible in one court may be permissible in another.
Criminal versus civil contempt (NRS 22.100; NRS 22.110)
There is another type of contempt besides criminal contempt called "civil contempt." Both types of contempt may result in fines and jail. And both types of contempt can occur in criminal cases and civil lawsuits. But otherwise they are very different:
Criminal contempt is meant to punish people who impede court proceedings. In contrast, "civil contempt" is meant to compel people to follow court orders for the benefit of others. A common example of civil contempt is a judge fining a defendant for violating a restraining order against a witness. The purpose of the fine is to deter the defendant from contacting the witness again.
Another difference between criminal and civil contempt is the length that the contempt lasts. Criminal contempt constitutes its own case which is handled separately from any underlying case. In contrast, civil contempt ceases when the lawsuit from which the contempt arose is resolved.
Criminal contempt in child custody cases (NRS 125C.040)
Custodial parents imprisoned for civil contempt may be allowed to temporarily leave jail to go to work. If they do not return to jail when ordered to, they are deemed to have escaped from custody. They may then be charged with criminal contempt.
Defenses to criminal contempt in Nevada
Criminal contempt of court is just like any criminal charge in that the prosecution has the burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The following are the most common defenses to criminal contempt in Nevada:
- Lack of intent. Willfulness is an essential element in the Nevada crime of criminal contempt. As long as the defendant violated court procedures by accident or at no fault of his/her own, contempt charges should not stand.
- Lack of contempt. Perhaps the judge wrongly believes that the defendant's behavior qualifies as contempt. Or maybe the defendant's actions were a permissible exercise of his/her constitutional rights. The contempt charge should be dismissed if the prosecutor cannot show that the defendant's behavior rose to the level of criminal contempt.
- False allegations. Judges may mistakenly hold the wrong person in contempt. Or perhaps someone wrongly accused the defendant of contemptuous behavior out of revenge or anger. If the defense attorney raises a reasonable doubt about the defendant committing contempt, then he/she should not be held criminally liable.
Note that a contempt conviction can be appealed. Learn more about Nevada criminal appeals laws.
Penalties for criminal contempt of court in Nevada
Criminal contempt is a misdemeanor in Nevada. The maximum sentence includes:
- six months in jail, and/or
- $1,000 in fines
Judges typically impose only fines unless the defendant does something particularly offensive or has a pattern of "contemptible" behavior.
Civil contempt penalties in Nevada
Note that penalties for civil contempt may include fines and even incarceration similar to criminal contempt. The standard penalty for civil contempt is:
- up to $500 in fines and/or
- up to twenty-five days in jail
But punishments may be harsher depending on the circumstances of the civil contempt. For instance, refusing to testify before a grand jury in Nevada carries up to six months in jail or the length of time until the grand jury is discharged (whichever is less).
And when the contempt stems from the person defying a court order to perform an act, the judge may put the person in prison until he/she performs it.
Accused of criminal contempt? Call us for help...
If you have been charged with "criminal contempt of court" in Nevada, call our Las Vegas criminal defense lawyers at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673) for a free consultation. We may be able to smooth things over with the court and get your contempt charge lifted or penalties reduced.
We represent clients throughout Nevada, including Las Vegas, Henderson, Washoe County, Reno, Carson City, Laughlin, Mesquite, Bunkerville, Moapa, Elko, Pahrump, Searchlight, and Tonopah.
To learn about California contempt laws | Penal Code 166 PC, read our article on California "contempt of court" laws | Penal Code 166 PC. For Colorado cases, please see our article on contempt of court law in Colorado.