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Facing Contempt Charges? Understand The Difference Between Civil And Criminal Contempt In Practical Terms

Many people don't realize that there are two types of contempt of court charges—civil and criminal. Learn more about the difference between the two and what can actually happen if you are charged.

The Purpose Of Civil Contempt Charges

The purpose of a civil contempt charge is coercion. It's generally used as a tool to get a legal issue that's stalled back in motion. The court levels the contempt charge as a way to pressure the individual into doing what it wants—essentially putting the individual in charge of his or her own sentence. Civil contempt charges can result from things like refusing to answer a judge's question when ordered (when there's no legal right for you to refuse) or not turning over evidence in a case that the court has demanded. Journalists are often known for going to jail on civil contempt charges for refusing to reveal the names of information sources to investigators. 

The Purpose Of Criminal Contempt Charges

The purpose of a criminal contempt charge is to uphold the authority of the court and punish those who misbehave.

There are some easy ways to land in jail for criminal contempt of court—yelling at the judge, leaving your cell phone on and starting a conversation while court is proceeding, showing up to your hearing with a t-shirt that has profanity on it—all of which show disrespect for the court. Some judges are more tolerant than others, but you run the risk of a criminal contempt charge anytime you are less-than-respectful in court.

The Major Differences Between The Two Charges In Practical Terms

Your rights as a prisoner vary greatly, depending on whether you are charged with civil or criminal contempt. Civil contempt charges often carry immediate sentencing—which means that you'll be taken from the courtroom to jail immediately, without any further hearing or chance to appeal. Because you aren't charged with a crime, you also don't have the automatic right to legal counsel. The standard of evidence required to hold you is also much lower than it would be if you were facing criminal contempt—civil cases only require that a majority of the evidence (51%) is against you.

Criminal contempt charges afford you more immediate rights than civil contempt charges. In some jurisdictions, you are able to remain free or post bail while you try to appeal the charges. You are also entitled, as a criminal defendant, to legal representation if you cannot afford to hire your own. In addition, jail terms for criminal contempt are limited by state laws.

You may also be afforded the right to a jury trial if the jail time you face is significant and, like any other criminal defendant, you have to be found guilty without a reasonable doubt.

The Reason To Hire A Criminal Law Attorney

In either situation, trying to handle the issue without legal representation is unwise. There are methods that a criminal law attorney can use to try to resolve both types of contempt charges. For example, your attorney may be able to get the court to reconsider the contempt charge or file a motion, called a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that your incarceration is without good cause or equals excessive punishment. The writ essentially asks the court to justify your continued incarceration without charges, release you, or charge you (therefore giving you more rights). An attorney may also be able to get the record of your contempt charge expunged from your record, to keep it from affecting your future.