It’s in your court: ‘I’m holding you in contempt of court’

by Judge Steve Halsey

If you are ever in court, these are the seven words you do not want to hear. Direct contempt of court may be found by a judge if a party or lawyer in the courtroom says or behaves in a highly disrespectful way to the court.

Judge Steve Halsey
Judge Steve Halsey

This may include showing up for court while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a somewhat frequent occurrence in our court, or using profane language or shouting or threatening someone present or failing to remain in the witness box or at counsel table.

It must be something that the judge hears or sees occur in the courtroom. If someone is found in contempt of court, they are usually sentenced to a few hours (to sober up) or a few days in jail to ponder their poor judgment in acting as they did.

Indirect or constructive contempt of court may be found if a person violates a court order without a lawful excuse. For example, failure to pay child support may result in contempt of court unless the support obligor proves a lawful excuse, such as a medical condition or disability that prevents them from complying with the child support order.

Frequently, however, support obligors do not pay even a small portion of the order and end up owing the obligee and/or the state tens of thousands of dollars in support.

This can result in a stayed sentence of up to 180 days in jail and being given an opportunity to satisfy the unpaid support (“purge” the contempt). If after a second hearing the obligor fails to prove a lawful excuse for not paying the arrears and staying current in support since the first hearing, the jail term will often be ordered served immediately.

Other examples of indirect contempt of court are:

• Denial or interference with child visitation

• Failure to transfer property awarded to the other party in a divorce decree

• Failure to pay spousal maintenance (alimony)

• Disobeying a subpoena to testify as a witness

Contempt of court can also be charged as a misdemeanor if a person on probation violates a condition of probation in the presence of the arresting police officer. For example, if a condition of probation is “no use or possession of alcohol” and the officer finds the person intoxicated, a misdemeanor citation for contempt of court can be issued.

There are many incidents of direct contempt of court which one can view on You Tube and other Internet sites. These usually involve a defendant in custody calling the judge a profane name, or giving them “the finger,” but may also include courtroom brawls among defendants, bailiffs and members of the audience. These brawls are very dangerous and not at all funny.

Contempt of court is very serious business as it can result in time in jail. If someone is making a motion to have you held in contempt of court, you should consult an attorney long before the hearing or apply for a court-appointed attorney if you are indigent.

Submitted by Wright County District Court Judge Steve Halsey. Halsey hosts “The District Court Show” on local cable TV. Episodes may be viewed at

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