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The phrase “contempt of court” seems to be a glamorized term, used in the media and mentioned in high-profile cases. But, what does it really mean? And what are the consequences?

Contempt of court refers to any misconduct in the presence of the court or willful disobedience to a court order. The term may also be used if a judge feels someone is improperly challenging or ignoring court authority. There are two types of contempt–civil and criminal. If convicted, potential consequences may be fines, imprisonment, or both.

Civil contempt of court​ occurs when the defendant willfully disobeys a court order. Often referred to as indirect contempt, because the action typically takes place outside the courts view, therefore evidence must be presented to prove disobedience occurred. In civil cases, the defendant may be fined, jailed, or both, with the intention being to coerce the person into obeying the court. In family law, civil contempt is one way a court may enforce alimony, child support, or visitation orders that may have been violated.

Criminal contempt​ exists when the defendant interferes with the ability of the court to function properly. Commonly called direct contempt, this action occurs in front of a court, such as yelling at a judge or harassing a jury member. With a criminal contempt charge, accusers may be fined, jailed, or both.

Sometimes the lines between criminal and civil contempt of court are blurred, and it is up to the judge and counsel to interpret the law.