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What is Contempt of Court?

Updated on January 21, 2010

Contempt of court is an act of disrespect for or disobedience of a court. Contempt of court may be either a criminal or civil offense. Criminal contempt may be either direct or indirect.

A person is guilty of direct criminal contempt in a courtroom if he commits perjury, refuses to testify, uses improper language, or disturbs the proceedings of the court. Indirect, or constructive, criminal contempt occurs through acts committee outside a courtroom. Such an act may be an attempt by a newspaper or person to prejudice a judge or jury or may be an attack on the decision reached in a case. Contempt citations for criticizing a judge are rare, however, because such citations are often seen as dangerous attacks on freedom of speech and of the press.

A person is guilty of civil contempt when he fails to obey a court order or injunction. In such cases the person usually can purge, or clear, himself only by obeying the court's order.

Contempt of court is punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. Usually the penalty may be imposed directly by a judge without a trial, although in some
instances a jury trial is required.


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