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What is the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Contempt?

When faced with a former partner who is refusing to comply with a court order you may decide to file a Motion for Contempt. If you are on the filing or receiving end of this contempt motion, a common question is the difference between civil and criminal contempt. Your attorney will be able to discuss these unique differences with you before you file or after you are served with this motion.

Contempt is generally defined as a refusal to comply with a court order. The idea of contempt is not only to protect the individual’s rights who is due some action or payment by the defiant defendant, but contempt was also initiated to “protect [the court] against those who disregard its dignity and authority or disobey its orders,” In re Inquiry Concerning Perry, 641 So. 2d 366 (Fla. 1994). Further, contempt comes in two forms civil and criminal, both having unique features only applicable to certain cases. Therefore, it is imperative to know the difference between the two and apply the proper contempt sought to your case.

First, it is important to note the similarities between these contempt motions. Both criminal and civil contempt can be further subcategorized into direct or indirect contempt. Direct contempt is when the action of contempt occurs within the presence of the court. This may include, a party discussing a matter during testimony that the court already ordered was irrelevant, or continuously interrupting the court proceedings. While indirect contempt occurs outside of the court. These actions are more common as they typically result when a party refuses to make a proper payment of child support or alimony. Further, both civil and criminal contempt whether direct or indirect can have legal consequences of fines, imprisonment, or sanctions.

However, there are many differences between civil and criminal contempt. First, the purposes behind each vary. With civil contempt, the court is attempting to encourage compliance by the defiant defendant. While the purpose of criminal contempt is to punish the noncompliant individual. The processes between the two also vary. For instance, a civil contempt action is governed under Florida Family Law Rule 12.615. The process begins with a motion with a copy of the valid court order and the alleged failure to comply. The motion will be served on the party who is allegedly in contempt along with the date and time of the hearing on the matter as well as a provision stating that a failure to appear at this hearing may result in arrest, or a ruling on the motion. At the hearing, the court will determine if a party has failed to comply with support obligations and if the failure to comply with these obligations was willful, or if there were underlying reasons causing them to be unable to meet the obligations. Further, if the party fails to appear the court may order incarceration with an ability to purge the amount due. The ability to purge oneself of the contempt is unique to civil contempt and allows the individual to avoid further punishment. If found to be in civil contempt, the court will make specific findings as to the existence of a valid court order, the failure to comply with this order, and the ability to meet the required obligations. The court may then impose penalties such as incarceration, payment of the opposing party’s attorney fees and costs, fines, or establish a new method for future payments.

Direct Criminal contempt is governed by Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure 3.830. These actions are not brought by a private party but rather the court itself, because to be in direct contempt the action would have occurred in the presence of the court. The judgment entered against the contempt party will be entered by the judge and recite the contemptuous actions that occurred before him. In contrast, Indirect Criminal Contempt is governed by Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure 3.840. An indirect criminal contempt motion may be brought by the judge or be based upon an affidavit of an individual. The unique quality to a criminal contempt action is that the individual is required to be given the opportunity to “show cause” as to why they should not be found guilty of criminal contempt, the judge may not simply adjudicate the individual as guilty without the necessary show cause hearing. However, there is no purge provision in criminal contempt that would allow the guilty party to avoid sanctions, or punishment, like there is in civil contempt. After being adjudicated as guilty of criminal contempt, you cannot avoid any punishment or sanction handed down by the judge.

Whether you wish to file a Motion for Contempt or have been served with a Motion for Contempt contact an experienced attorney to handle your case and discuss the options available to you as well as the different types of contempt you may be facing.

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