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Contempt of Court: The Basics


"Contempt" is a word that often comes up in post-divorce proceedings.  Generally, it means a party has either failed to do something the court has ordered done for the benefit of another party (civil contempt) or an act has been committed with the intent to undermine the dignity of the court or obstruct its proceedings (criminal contempt).

A trial court is authorized by statute (T.C.A. § 29-9-103) to fine and incarcerate a party in contempt.  Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority, 249 S.W.3d 346 (Tenn. 2008), is not a family law case, but it is one of the most recent decisions from the state's highest court about the framework for deciding civil contempt cases.  First, there must be a finding the disobeyed order is a lawful order, meaning the court issuing the order had authority to do so.  A disagreement over whether the court decided the issue correctly is not a defense in a contempt proceeding.  Erroneous orders must be followed until they are reversed.  Id. at 355.

The order must be clear and unambiguous in what it is directing a party to do.  Any ambiguities are to be construed in favor of the party accused of contempt.  If there is more than one reasonable interpretation of the language in the order, there is no basis to find a party in contempt.  Id. at 355-56.

The court must then determine whether the order was actually violated and whether the violation was "willful."  This must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence.  In a civil contempt case, there does not have to be a finding the party acted with a bad purpose in mind.  It is enough if the act or failure to act was voluntary and intentional.  Id. at 357.

As mentioned above, a party can be incarcerated when found in civil contempt.  However, jail time is only appropriate when the party has the ability to comply with the court order at the time of the hearing.  If the party is put in jail, he/she can purge the contempt and be freed by complying with the court order.  Ahern v. Ahern, 15 S.W.3d 73, 79 (Tenn. 2000)

A civil contempt finding can be appealed.  However, the appellate court will review the case under an "abuse of discretion" standard.  This means the trial court's conclusions about the facts are presumed to be correct and the burden of proof is on the appealing party to show the trial court got it wrong.

Criminal contempt proceedings are just that, criminal proceedings.  As such, the accused is entitled to heightened protections including notice that complies with the rules of criminal procedure and a reasonable amount of time to prepare a defense.  The accused is presumed innocent and the burden of proof at the hearing is beyond a reasonable doubt instead of a preponderance of the evidence.  However, the accused is not entitled to a jury trial.

Unlike civil contempt, a party who is incarcerated for criminal contempt cannot free himself/herself by performing an act.  The sentence is meant to be punitive, not coercion to act.  The trial court may impose a sentence of up to ten (10) days for each act of contempt.

Criminal contempt convictions may also be appealed.  Once convicted, the presumption of innocence is lost.  If the defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence, the appellate court will look to see if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, would cause any trier of fact to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  Cottingham v. Cottingham, 193 S.W.3d 531, 538 (Tenn. 2006).

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