Contempt of court by Lawrence E. Weiss, attorney-at-law
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1996:
Steve Hindi’s case has many points of legal
interest for animal rights activists. I believe contemptof-court
may be the new weapon of choice for district
attorneys in efforts to jail protesters.
Activists may encounter a contempt charge in
either a civil or criminal context. Contempt is a sanction
for disobedience of a court order, such as an
injunction or temporary restraining order, or for “disrespectful”
courtroom behavior. The alleged disrespect
may include any behavior that the judge feels is disorderly,
but is most often a refusal to leave the courtroom,
to stop talking, or to answer a question when
ordered to so so by the judge.
Contempt is classified as either “direct” or
“indirect.” Direct contempt takes place in the presence
of the judge; indirect contempt occurs anywhere else.
Courts may punish direct contempt on the spot. In
either kind of contempt case, however, the defendant is
entitled to present a defense to the charge. This requires
that the defendant must be notified in advance that a
hearing is to take place, and must have sufficient time
to hire counsel and prepare a defense.
If you are charged with contempt, you will
either be told about it in court, or be served with a hearing
notice. You always have the right to an attorney in
contempt proceedings, but in most jurisdictions you do
not have a right to a jury trial.
Whether you have a right to a hearing before a
different judge, or must appear before the same judge
already presiding in your case, depends upon local law.
In cases of direct contempt, it is likely that the judge in
your case will decide the matter. However, you may
want to request on the record that the hearing be held
before another judge, whom you feel may be more
impartial. This could strengthen your chance an appeal.
Defenses against contempt include lack of disrespectful
intent; being unaware of the injunction or
TRO that you are alleged to have violated; physical
inability to comply with the court order; that you never
received notice of the hearing or were unable to attend
the hearing for a good reason; and/or that you misunderstood
an imprecisely worded court order.
The charge of contempt of court exists in both
the state and federal systems. You are most likely to
encounter it in a courtroom, but may face contempt
charges in other situations. For example, if you are
subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury and you
refuse to attend or to answer questions, you may be
cited for contempt. People have been jailed for contempt,
for instance, for refusing to testify before grand
juries about arsons and laboratory break-ins allegedly
carried out by animal rights activists.
Certain administrative agencies are also given
the power to cite contempt. The punishment varies
from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
[Lawrence Weiss, of Santa Rosa, California]