What is Contempt of Court?

What is Contempt of Court?

If you’ve ever watched a television legal drama, like “Better Call Saul” or “All Rise,” you’ve probably watched the judge slam down the gavel and threaten to hold an attorney or a witness “in contempt.” What exactly does it mean to be in Contempt of Court? What are the potential punishments? 


Contempt of Court refers to any conduct that defies, disrespects or insults the authority or dignity of the court. Contempt is typically in the form of any action seen as detrimental to the court’s ability to administer justice

Simply put, contempt of court is the disobedience of an order of the court. Judges have discretion when it comes to deciding whom to hold in contempt. People who can be held in contempt include any parties relevant to a court proceeding, attorneys, jurors, court staff or officers, witnesses, and people in or around a proceeding. 

Criminal vs. Civil 

There are two types of contempt of court: criminal and civil. 

Criminal contempt charges can be applied in many different sets of circumstances: when someone does something verbally disruptive during court proceedings, refuses to answer questions while on the stand, or fails to follow laws pertaining to jury duty. These charges 

become separate charges from the underlying case. The charges are punitive, meaning they are meant to deter future acts by punishing the offender no matter what happens in the original court proceeding. 

Where criminal contempt differs from other criminal charges is that incarceration may begin almost immediately, before the charge is adjudicated and a sentence is decided. The same judge who decides to charge you with contempt may also preside over your contempt proceedings. 

If you’re charged with criminal contempt, you have the rights of any other defendant, including the right to counsel, the right to present a defense and the right to a jury trial in certain cases. Charges of criminal contempt are like any other: they must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Civil contempt involves the failure of someone to comply with a court order when they were aware the order existed. Unlike a criminal contempt charge, you are not entitled to a jury trial in a civil contempt proceeding. Judges use civil contempt to coerce someone into complying with a court order. 

Direct vs. Indirect 

Contempt can be split into two other categories: direct and indirect.

Direct contempt of court happens in the presence of the court, in front of a judge. This involves committing an action like yelling at a judge or court officer in such a way that impedes the court’s ability to function and disrespects all involved. 

Indirect contempt occurs outside of a court. This can include improperly communicating with jurors, refusing to turn over evidence, refusing to pay court ordered child support or other required fees or violates an order of protection. 

NY statute 

In New York, Criminal Contempt in the first degree includes refusing to be sworn in as a witness or refusing to answer questions on the stand. It also includes violating an order of protection, including harassing or injuring the person for whom the protective order was issued. This is a class E felony. 

Criminal contempt in the second degree includes disorderly conduct in court, intentional disobedience of lawful process or another court mandate, refusal to be sworn in as a witness in any court proceeding, knowingly publishing a false report of court proceedings, failing to obey orders pertaining to jury functions, and/or shouting or holding/displaying signs within a radius of two hundred feet of a courthouse which concerns the court proceedings underway, or the character of the court or jury. This is a class A misdemeanor. 

If you or someone you love has been accused of Criminal Contempt, contact a criminal defense attorney right away.