What Does the Charge Criminal Contempt Mean in Utah?

You may have seen TV shows or read news articles that described a person as being “in contempt of court.”  But what does this phrase actually mean, and when does contempt of court become a criminal act?  Salt Lake City DUI lawyer Darwin Overson explains what it means to be in contempt of court, and goes over some of the penalties and consequences that can result under Utah’s judicial code.

5 Reasons You Can Be Found in Contempt of Court Under Utah Code 78B-6-301

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Courts are very strict and rigid when it comes to the rules that defendants, plaintiffs, and others are expected to follow.  When you are under a court’s authority, you are expected to comply with all of that court’s rules, decisions, and orders.

If a person is in contempt of court, it means that he or she has somehow violated or ignored the rules and procedures laid out by the court.  The Utah judicial system defines contempt as “Any act involving disrespect to the court or failure to obey its rules or orders.”

As you might imagine based on that definition, contempt is a rather broad term.  Though often associated with divorce proceedings, contempt can occur in a variety of situations, for a variety of reasons.  In fact, Utah Code § 78B-6-301, one of the statutes that governs judicial proceedings in Utah, sets forth no fewer than 12 acts – or in some cases, failures to act, which are called “omissions” – that constitute contempt.

Under this statute, some of the reasons a person can be found in contempt of court are that he or she:

  • Acts with “disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior toward the judge” during a civil or criminal trial, or during any other court proceeding, such as an arraignment or preliminary hearing.
  • Acts in a boisterous, violent, or otherwise disruptive manner that interrupts the trial or hearing.
  • Disobeys a court order or judgment – for example, intentionally failing to pay victim restitution or child support.
  • Disobeys a subpoena, which is essentially an order to appear in court.
  • Refuses to be sworn in or answer questions as a witness to a crime or civil wrong (tort), like an auto accident.

How is Criminal Contempt Different from Civil Contempt?

The difference between civil and criminal contempt is somewhat murky.  Tackling this very issue in 1948, an article published in Indiana Law Journal quoted Federal Judge T. Alan Goldsborough, who quipped, “If you know the exact difference between a civil and criminal contempt, you are the only person who does.”  The same piece referenced an article published in Columbia Law Review, in which the author stated, “Few legal distinctions are emptier.”

That being said, a distinction does exist, and is perhaps best described in terms of the proceedings – and penalties, which are described in the next section – that can arise from either.

When a person is charged with criminal contempt, he or she has a right to all the normal protections that a defendant is entitled to in a criminal case – for instance, the right to be notified of the charges, and to be represented by an attorney.

By comparison, if the matter is civil, “Neither a jury trial nor proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required,” as the United States Supreme Court noted in International Union, UMWA v. Bagwell (1994).  The punishments for civil contempt are, to quote the Office of the United States Attorneys, “avoidable through obedience.”

As the U.S. Supreme Court held in Gompers v. Buck’s Stove & Range Co. (1910), “It is not the fact of punishment but rather its character and purpose that often serve to distinguish between the classes of cases.  If it is for civil contempt, the punishment is remedial and for the benefit of the complainant.  But if it is for criminal… the sentence is punitive, to vindicate the authority of the court.”

So what punishment, exactly, might the party in contempt receive?

Penalties for Contempt of Court Under Utah Code 78B-6-310: Fines and Jail Time

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Depending on the severity of the act of contempt, there can be fairly serious consequences.  While it is somewhat uncommon for Utah courts to sentence jail time for contempt in a legal proceeding related to family law – for instance, a divorce case – it is unwise to make such a gamble.  Depending on how many times the party in contempt has already disobeyed court orders, as well as the nature of the act or omission that constitutes contempt, jail time is one potential consequence.

Specifically, Utah Code § 78B-6-310 provides a maximum jail sentence of up to 30 days in the county jail where the offense occurs – for example, the Salt Lake County Jail in Salt Lake City.  In addition to or in place of the jail sentence, the court may also impose, at the judge’s discretion, a fine of up to $1,000.  The exception would be if the judge is a justice court judge, in which case the jail sentence is limited to five days while the fine is limited to $500.  (For reference, Utah’s justice courts have jurisdiction over Class C and Class B misdemeanors, but are not allowed to try more serious crimes like Class A misdemeanors or felonies, such as murder or kidnapping.)

Even if the person is not sentenced to jail, there can also be other financial penalties for contempt.  For example, depending on the circumstances, the court may order the party in contempt to pay for the other party’s attorney fees.

Schedule a Free Consultation with a Salt Lake County Defense Lawyer

If you or one of your family members was charged with contempt in Salt Lake City, Park City, Riverton, or other locations in Utah, you should talk to an experienced Riverton criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.  Park City criminal defense attorney Darwin Overson has over 16 years of experience representing thousands of defendants charged with felonies and misdemeanors throughout Utah, including assault, sex crimes, and weapons crimes.  To set up a free legal consultation, call the law offices of Overson Law at (801) 758-2287.