remember not to be held in civil contempt

Posted in Uncategorized by Ryan Locke on January 8, 2009

says Ryan.

The Wall Street Journal has an article today about civil contempt — the power of a court to throw you in jail until you do something.

A judge generally can issue either a civil or criminal contempt charge whenever he or she feels that a party has disobeyed an order or has disrupted a proceeding.

In a criminal contempt charge, which is aimed at punishing bad behavior, a defendant is afforded the due-process safeguards of the criminal system, including a possible jury trial.

Civil contempt charges, on the other hand, are meant to be coercive, issued to force behavior such as making a witness testify, compelling a journalist to reveal sources or strong-arming a parent into paying child support. Because civil “contemnors” hold the key to their own freedom — after all, complying will spring them — they aren’t given the same due-process rights as criminal defendants.

If someone held for civil contempt can’t meet the judge’s order, theoretically, the confinement should end. And while long-term civil confinements are unusual, problems arise when a court doesn’t believe the person. With the party and judge at loggerheads over, say, the availability of funds, it is often the contemnor who loses, forced to remain behind bars at the mercy of a skeptical judge. That has sparked cries for reform.

Here in Georgia, the maximum imprisonment time for criminal contempt is 20 days per charge, as per O.C.G.A. § 15-6-8. The maximum imprisonment time for civil contempt is forever, apparently, because the statutory limits only apply to criminal contempt.  The Supreme Court of Georgia made this clear in Minor v. Minor, holding that it was okay to charge the guy being held in jail for civil contempt $197 per day until he complied with the court — even though the contempt statute says you can’t do that.  362 S.E. 2d 208 (1987).

So, you know, takeaway tip: don’t bluff the court in a civil trial unless you want to spend a long time behind bars.


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