contempt of court, criminal

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Criminal contempt of court refers to disobedience of an order of the court which carries criminal penalties. Common examples of conduct which may result in criminal contempt of court charges include insulting the judge or creating a disturbance at trial. Penalties for criminal contempt include fines and potential jail time.

Like civil contempt of court charges, criminal contempt of court is separated into indirect contempt and direct contempt. Direct contempt of court is based on conduct that occurs during a court proceeding. Indirect contempt of court is based on violation of a court order demanding certain conduct outside of the courtroom. 

A criminal contempt of court charge functions as an entirely new charge against the defendant and, therefore, defendants charged with criminal contempt are afforded all the usual privileges of other criminal defendants. These include the right to a trial by jury, to examine and to call witnesses, and to testify on one's own behalf. 

Unlike civil contempt of court charges, the goal of criminal contempt of court is to punish misconduct, not to compel compliance. As a result, a party is subjected to any penalty associated with a criminal contempt charge regardless of if/when they choose to comply with the underlying court order. 

Examples of criminal contempt of court rules and statutes can be found at both federal and state levels. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure Rule 42 to punish “any person who commits criminal contempt … after prosecution on notice.” New York’s Judiciary Law §750 with the “power to punish for a criminal contempt” anybody who commits the actions of “disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior… breach of the peace, noise, or other disturbance… wilful disobedience to its lawful mandate, resistance wilfully offered to its lawful mandate, [and] contumacious and unlawful refusal to be sworn as a witness; or, after being sworn, to answer any legal and proper interrogatory” among others.

[Last updated in March of 2024 by the Wex Definitions Team]