Contempt of court refers to actions that challenge a court’s authority, cast disrespect on a court, or impede the ability of the court to perform its function. Contempt takes two forms: civil contempt and criminal contempt.
The most common form of civil contempt happens when someone fails to adhere to an order from the court, resulting in a violation of the rights of a private party. Usually, the injured party is the one to file an action for civil contempt. For example, failing to pay court ordered child support may lead to punishment for civil contempt. The injured party in this scenario would be the parent who has not yet received the court ordered child support payments.
Civil contempt sanctions are commonly used to coerce such a person into complying with a court order the person has violated. Unlike criminal contempt, which aims to punish the act, civil contempt has one of two goals. The first goal of civil contempt is to reinstate the rights of the party who was wronged by the failure to fulfill the court’s order. The second is to simply move an underlying proceeding along. When either of these goals is met, civil contempt sanctions typically end.
Criminal contempt charges, on the other hand, are punitive. This means that they serve to deter future acts of contempt by punishing the wrongdoer. An individual that has been incarcerated for criminal contempt cannot secure their own release by deciding to comply with the court; however, they are given the same constitutional rights guaranteed to criminal defendants.
Criminal contempt charges become separate charges from the underlying proceeding. Unlike civil contempt sanctions, criminal contempt charges have the potential to continue after the underlying case has been resolved. Criminal contempt charges may occur directly or indirectly. In order for one to occur directly, the act must take place in the presence of the court. In order for one to occur indirectly, the act must take place outside the presence of the court.