In family law the word “contempt” is often thrown around as a threat, but what does it really mean? There are two types of contempt: civil contempt and criminal contempt. This is further divided into direct and indirect criminal contempt. This article addresses direct criminal contempt.
The purpose of direct criminal contempt is to punish conduct that occurs in the presence of the court. Direct criminal contempt proceedings are governed by Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.830. The fact that a criminal rule of procedure governs a proceeding in family court might initially be counter-intuitive, however since the purpose is punitive in nature, and the punishment can include a jail sentence, basic criminal procedure must be followed.
When a person is accused of behavior that constitutes direct criminal contempt, they are NOT entitled to counsel during their hearing. During the hearing, the contemptor must be informed of the accusation and must be given an opportunity to show why he should not be found guilty, and the entire proceeding must be recorded with a court reporter. Like any criminal trial, the standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. They are, however, entitled to an opportunity to present evidence of excusing or mitigating circumstances prior to being sentenced. Sentences for direct criminal contempt can include a fine of up to $500 or 364 days in jail. In order to impose a sentence of six months or longer, a jury must try the facts of the case.