Contempt of Court is Often Overcharged

Contempt of Court is often associated with civil cases, such as when a subpoenaed party doesn’t appear or a judgment debtor doesn’t pay a judgment. In such situations, a Court has the power to hold the offending party in contempt and actually put them in jail until they comply.

Contempt of Court is also available in the criminal justice system. And, unlike in the civil arena, a criminal contempt of court can lead to separate criminal charges – a tool that is unfortunately utilized by prosecutors to further jam up (bully, perhaps) defendants with more charges.

Under Minn. Stat. 588.20, there is both felony and misdemeanor contempt of court. A felony contempt of court occurs when a subpoenaed party “knowingly and willfully” disobeys a subpoena in a crime of violence case (e.g. domestic assault cases). There is a safe-harbor provision, which allows the disobeying party to make right if they show in the 48 hours that follow. A misdemeanor contempt of court can result from a variety of conduct, but the most common prosecuted is when the person willfully disobeys a lawful process or mandate of a court – i.e. similar to a felony contempt, but not in cases involving a crime of violence.

The problem with this statutory language is that it is sufficiently vague, leading to state prosecutors to exploit it when they, and they alone, deem appropriate. As you can imagine, this leads to an abuse of the system.

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently curtailed this abuse when it held that a contempt of court charge must be dismissed when it is premised on an alleged probation violation. Part of its holding was based on the notion that, by using the contempt of court statute to bring separate charges, the state can usurp the Court’s role in handling probation violations. If there is an alleged probation violation, there is a separate and detailed process, which includes two hearings and the Court determining what punishment, if any, is appropriate after utilizing the specific standard for probation violations. But, by bringing a separate contempt of court charge, the State has effectively usurped this process or, even worse, added to this probation violation process, all to the detriment of the defendant.

Still, despite this new ruling by the Supreme Court, prosecutors are utilizing the contempt of court statute to maximize the pressure put on defendants. We’ve seen this occur for an alleged condition of release violation – which is akin to a probation violation. And, like a probation violation, the rules governing a condition of release has procedures in place to how the state should proceed if a violation is alleged – i.e. bring the person before the court immediately via summons or complaint, have a hearing, and the judge decides how the violation impacts the imposed conditions of release.

The problem with this abuse is that a defendant now faces new and separate criminal charges. And this additional charge is another mark on the person’s record and will, undoubtedly, negatively impact their future job and/or house hunts, ability to get professional licenses, etc. But, state prosecutors don’t think about these collateral consequences when they seek to impose their brand of justice.

We don’t stand for this. And we will fight for you if you find yourself in this situation. Give us a call today.