Contempt of Court – California Penal Code 166 PC
In the 1979 film And Justice for All when Al Pacino exclaims in the courtroom, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! This whole trial is out of order!!” he would likely be found in contempt of court. Also known simply as “contempt”, this act encompasses a number of broadly-defined behaviors deemed disrespectful to the court such as disobeying an official court order or interrupting a trial currently in progress. There are two types of contempt of court: civil and criminal. You can find what constitutes criminal contempt of court in the California Penal Code.
What is criminal contempt of court under California law? California Penal Code Section 166(a) PC provides the following definition:
(a) Except as provided in subdivisions (b), (c), and (d), a person guilty of any of the following contempts of court is guilty of a misdemeanor:
- Disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior committed during the sitting of a court of justice, in the immediate view and presence of the court, and directly tending to interrupt its proceedings or to impair the respect due to its authority.
- Behavior specified in paragraph (1) that is committed in the presence of a referee, while actually engaged in a trial or hearing, pursuant to the order of a court, or in the presence of any jury while actually sitting for the trial of a cause, or upon an inquest or other proceeding authorized by law.
- A breach of the peace, noise or other disturbance directly tending to interrupt the proceedings of the court.
- Willful disobedience of the terms as written of any process or court order or out-of-state court order, lawfully issued by a court, including orders pending trial.
- Resistance willfully offered by any person to the lawful order or process of a court.
- The contumacious and unlawful refusal of a person to be sworn as a witness or, when so sworn, the like refusal to answer a material question.
- The publication of a false or grossly inaccurate report of the proceedings of a court.
- Presenting to a court having power to pass sentence upon a prisoner under conviction, or to a member of the court, an affidavit, testimony, or representation of any kind, verbal or written, in aggravation or mitigation of the punishment to be imposed upon the prisoner, except as provided in this code.
- 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.
Prosecution of Contempt of Court
In order for you to be convicted of contempt of court the prosecution must prove all of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- A court issued a written order to the defendant;
- The defendant knew about the court order and its contents;
- The defendant had the ability to follow the court order; AND
- The defendant willfully violated the court order.
Sentencing and Punishment for Contempt of Court
The punishment of contempt of court is largely at the discretion of the judge. If you are convicted of contempt of court, you face a sentence of up to 364 days in county jail. However, certain violations carry penalties which are specified in the Penal Code:
Pursuant to PC 166 (b), if you violate PC 166 (a)(4) by contacting a victim who you have previously been found guilty of stalking, you can face a sentence in county jail of up to 364 days and a fine of $5,000.
Pursuant to PC 166 (c), if you violate a protective or stay-away order you may face up to 364 days in county jail and a fine of $1,000 (except in circumstances as described in PC 166 (b)).
Possible Defenses to Contempt of Court
If you have been charged with contempt of court, a skilled criminal defense attorney can raise several defenses on your behalf. These defenses may include:
- You did not mean to be in contempt – In order to be found guilty, you must have acted “willfully/intentionally.” In other words, your disruptive behavior was done willingly.
- You did not know about the court order – A viable defense to a contempt of court charge is if you were not aware of any order issued to you in the first place. For example, if you are ordered to appear in court for a hearing but the subpoena was delivered to the wrong person, you may not be convicted of contempt of court.
- You did not have the ability to follow the court order – For example, if you are issued a restraining order to stay away from a certain person but that person showed up at your house without your knowledge, you should not be convicted of contempt of court.
Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Contempt of Court
At Wallin & Klarich, we frequently receive questions from those facing contempt of court charges. These include:
If I knew about my court order but did not read it, can I still be found guilty of contempt of court?
Yes. If you had the actual opportunity to read the contents of an order but you did not, you can still be charged with contempt.
If I aid someone in committing an act which is in contempt of court, can I also be convicted of contempt?
Yes. Even if you are not directly bound by the order, you are in violation of PC 166 if you assist someone who is.
Is violating my probation considered contempt of court?
No. Violating a condition of probation and contempt of court are considered two separate crimes. You may not be prosecuted under Penal Code 166 PC for a violation of probation.
Contact Wallin & Klarich if You Have Been Charged with Contempt of Court
Wallin & Klarich has been successfully defending those facing contempt of court charges for over 40 years. We can help you, too. Our skilled attorneys are confident that we can help you achieve the best possible outcome in your case.
With offices in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville there is a skilled Wallin & Klarich criminal defense attorney available to help you no matter where you work or live.
Call us at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free telephone consultation. We will get through this together.