Contempt of court entails different types of behavior that are disrespectful to the court and the court process including violating a court order.
Below we explain the legal aspects of this law.
California Penal Code Section 166
California Penal Code Section 166, punishes behavior that is referred to as contempt of court, which refers to different types of behavior that are essentially disrespectful to the court and the court process.
Subsection (a)(4) of the Penal Code Section 166 warrants the most serious penalties because it entails a willful violation of a court order.
As such, our explanation of contempt of court laws will center around subsection (a)(4) of the California Penal Code Section 166:
- Willful disobedience of an order issued by a court;1
- Disorderly or rude behavior engaged in during a court session that tends to interrupt the session and is disrespectful to a judge and court staff;2
- A breach of the peace, noise, or other disturbance directly tending to interrupt the proceedings of the court;3
- Resistance willfully offered by any person to the lawful order or process of a court;4
- Refusing to be sworn in as a witness and/or refusing to answer questions during a court proceeding;5
- The publication of a false or grossly inaccurate report of the proceedings of a court;6
- Willful disobedience of the terms of an injunction that restrains the activities of a criminal street gang or any of its members, lawfully issued by a court, including an order pending trial. 7
How Does the Prosecutor Prove Contempt of Court?
To prove that you someone is guilty of contempt of court under subsection (a)(4) of the Penal Code Section 166, the prosecutor has to prove the following facts or elements8):
- A court lawfully issued a written order9
- The defendant knew about the court order and its contents10
- A person who is not directly bound by a court order may nevertheless violate Penal Code section 166(a)(4) if he or she acts in concert with a person who is directly bound by the order.11
- The defendant had the ability to follow the court order12 AND
- The defendant willfully violated the court order13
Examples of disorderly behavior during a court proceeding
Isaac, a witness in a trial, shouts insulting words about the judge’s political inclination during a trial.
Isaac will be found to be in contempt of the court and can be charged with the offense.
Examples of willful disobedience of an order issued by a court:
Mark, a guard mishandled a federal prisoner in a county jail. He could not be convicted of criminal contempt because this conduct was not embodied in an order.
But where there was a court order committing a prisoner into the custody of a sheriff to be held safe until the expiration of his sentence, Mark’s conduct in allowing a prisoner to go free would be considered in criminal contempt of the order.
Legal Defenses For Contempt of Court Charges
There are several defenses that your attorney can assert on your behalf to fight a charge of contempt of court.
Here are the most common ones:
- The court order was not lawfully issued14
- The defendant did not know about the court order15
- The defendant did not intent to violate the court order16
- The defendant did not have an ability to comply with the court order17
|Fine||Up to $1,000|
|Jail||Up to 6 months|
The following are examples of aggravating circumstances that could result in greater penalties and higher fines such as imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine:
Next Steps If You Need Help
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- Pen. Code, §166(a)(4). [↩]
- Pen. Code, §166(a)(1). [↩]
- California Penal Code 166(a)(3). [↩]
- Penal Code 166(a)(5). [↩]
- Penal Code 166(a)(7). [↩]
- Penal Code 166(a)(8). [↩]
- California Penal Code 166(a)(10)., available at https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?sectionNum=166.&lawCode=PEN [↩]
- Penal Code 166(a)(4 [↩]
- In order for a defendant to be guilty of violating Penal Code section 166(a)(4), the court order must be “lawfully issued.” (Pen. Code, § 166(a)(4); People v. Gonzalez (1996) 12 Cal.4th 804, 816–817 [50 Cal.Rptr.2d 74, 910 P.2d 1366].) The defendant may not be convicted for violating an order that is unconstitutional, and the defendant may bring a collateral attack on the validity of the order as a defense to this charge. (People v. Gonzalez, supra, 12 Cal.4th at pp. 816–818; In re Berry (1968) 68 Cal.2d 137, 147 [65 Cal.Rptr. 273, 436 P.2d 273].) The defendant may raise this issue on demurrer but is not required to. (People v. Gonzalez, supra, 12 Cal.4th at pp. 821, 824; In re Berry, supra, 68 Cal.2d at p. 146.) The legal question of whether the order was lawfully issued is the type of question normally resolved by the court. (People v. Gonzalez, supra, 12 Cal.4th at pp. 816–820; In re Berry, supra, 68 Cal.2d at p. 147. Order Must Be Lawfully Issued. Pen. Code, § 166(a)(4); People v. Gonzalez (1996) 12 Cal.4th 804, 816–817 [50 Cal.Rptr.2d 74, 910 P.2d 1366; In re Berry (1968) 68 Cal.2d 137, 147 [65 Cal.Rptr. 273, 436 P.2d 273]). [↩]
- The prosecution must prove that the defendant knew about the court order and that he/she had the opportunity to read the order or to otherwise become familiar with what it said. But the prosecutor does not have to prove that the defendant actually read the court order. Knowledge of Order Required. People v. Saffell (1946) 74 Cal.App.2d Supp. 967, 979 [168 P.2d 497]. Must Have Opportunity to Read but Need Not Actually Read Order. People v. Poe (1965) 236 Cal.App.2d Supp. 928, 938–941 [47 Cal.Rptr. 670]; People v. Brindley (1965) 236 Cal.App.2d Supp. 925, 927–928 [47 Cal.Rptr. 668], both decisions affd. sub nom. People v. Von Blum (1965) 236 Cal.App.2d Supp. 943 [47 Cal.Rptr. 679]. [↩]
- People v. Saffell (1946) 74 Cal.App.2d Supp. 967, 978–979 [168 P.2d 497]; Berger v. Superior Court (1917) 175 Cal. 719, 721 [167 P. 143].) available at https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/3305276/berger-v-superior-court/ “[A] nonparty to an injunction is subject to the contempt power of the court when, with knowledge of the injunction, the nonparty violates its terms with or for those who are restrained.” (People v. Conrad (1997) 55 Cal.App.4th 896, 903 [64 Cal.Rptr.2d 248] [italics in original].) The mere fact that the nonparty shares the same purpose as the restrained party is not sufficient. (Ibid.) “An enjoined party . . . has to be demonstrably implicated in the nonparty’s activity.” (Ibid. [↩]
- Ability to Comply With Order. People v. Greenfield (1982) 134 Cal.App.3d Supp. 1, 4 [184 Cal.Rptr. 604] [↩]
- Someone commits an act willfully when he or she does it willingly or on purpose. Willfully Defined. Pen. Code, § 7(1); People v. Lara (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 102, 107 [51 Cal.Rptr.2d 402]. [↩]
- Order Must Be Lawfully Issued. Pen. Code, § 166(a)(4); People v. Gonzalez (1996) 12 Cal.4th 804, 816–817 [50 Cal.Rptr.2d 74, 910 P.2d 1366; available at, In re Berry (1968) 68 Cal.2d 137, 147 [65 Cal.Rptr. 273, 436 P.2d 273] [↩]
- Knowledge of Order Required. People v. Saffell (1946) 74 Cal.App.2d Supp. 967, 979 [168 P.2d 497], available at https://casetext.com/case/people-v-saffell-3 [↩]
- General-Intent Offense. People v. Greenﬁeld (1982) 134 Cal.App.3d Supp. 1, 4 [184 Cal.Rptr. 604]., available at https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/3d/134/supp1.html [↩]
- Ability to Comply With Order. People v. Greenﬁeld (1982) 134 Cal.App.3d Supp. 1, 4 [184 Cal.Rptr. 604]. [↩]