Recent news reports out of Arizona regarding contempt of court charges against controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio highlight a strange twist in the inquiry by a federal judge into the Sheriff's alleged discriminatory practices – one with a Seattle connection – and provide a good case study of what constitutes “contempt of court.”
In May 2013, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow ruled that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office had engaged in racial profiling in its efforts to combat illegal immigration. The judge also ordered the Sheriff's office to hand over specific documents and implement certain reforms. The Sheriff's office did not comply with some of these orders. In addition, in a bizarre twist, Sheriff Arpaio later admitted to hiring a Seattle man as a confidential informant to investigate an alleged conspiracy between Judge Snow and other persons against Sheriff Arpaio. In light of this accusation and the Sheriff's office's failure to comply with the court's orders, Judge Snow instigated a contempt of court hearing against Sheriff Arpaio in February of this year.
What is contempt of court?
An individual can be charged with contempt if they intentionally disobey a lawful court order, or cause a significant disturbance during a court hearing. Contempt can be punished with either civil or criminal sanctions, or both. Civil sanctions for contempt are meant to coerce the individual into complying with the court order they are ignoring, while criminal sanctions are punitive in nature and are imposed to punish the individual for failing to comply with a court order.
RCW 7.21.010 defines “contempt of court” as any instance where an individual intentionally:
- Acts disorderly, contemptuous, or rude towards a judge while in court, or interrupts a trial or other judicial proceeding;
- Disobeys a judgment, decree, order, or process of the court;
- Refuses to appear as a witness, or refuses to answer a question as a witness; or
- Refuses an otherwise legal request to produce a record, document, or other object.
When a person fails to follow a court order, or refuses to perform some action required by a court, and it is still possible for that person to perform – a court can find them in contempt of court. The crime is punishable by imprisonment and a fine of up to $2,000 per day that the contempt continues, or both. See RCW 7.21.030. These civil sanctions – fines and/or imprisonment – continue until the person chooses to follow the court order.
In addition to civil sanctions, if the contempt is so egregious that the judge or prosecuting attorney decides to file an action for criminal sanctions under RCW 7.21.040, a person found to be in contempt of court can be fined up to $5,000 or imprisoned for up to a year, or both, for each separate contempt of court.
Under RCW 7.21.050, a judge can also find an individual in contempt of court during an actual court proceeding. This occurs in situations where the judge actually witnesses the contempt within the courtroom – e.g., is present when the accused individual disrupts a trial. In these cases, the judge can impose any of the civil sanctions identified above, or criminal sanctions of a fine of up to $500, up to 30 days in jail, or both.
Seattle Criminal Defense Lawyer
As a former prosecutor for the state of Washington, attorney Steve Karimi will handle everything in your case with detail and zeal, including all steps necessary to build your defense, and to keep you out of jail. If you have been convicted of criminal content do not hesitate to contact us at 206-621-8777.