It can be a misdemeanor to disobey a court order. Disobedience of a court order is called contempt. A contempt proceeding is a special proceeding in which, technically speaking, the court and the person charged with contempt are the only parties. However, the person alleged to be aggrieved by disobedience to the order in question is permitted to participate in a role that is, in all but name, that of an amicus curiae. The proceeding is not an adversary proceeding of the usual kind, but courts generally use familiar litigation terms and concepts in discussing contempt proceedings. For example, the California Supreme Court has said that in a prosecution for constructive contempt, the affidavit on which the proceeding is based constitutes the complaint, the affidavit of the defendant constitutes the answer, and the issues of fact are thus framed by the respective affidavits serving as pleadings.
Appellate courts often characterize a civil contempt proceeding as "criminal," "quasi-criminal," or "criminal in nature." However, the proceeding is not a criminal action or a prosecution for crime, although the punishment for civil contempt may be the same as that for a crime: imprisonment or fine, or both. By referring to the proceeding as criminal, the courts mean merely that certain procedural rules applicable in criminal actions also apply in a civil contempt proceeding.
Generally, a person who is convicted of contempt may be punished by a fine not exceeding $1,000 or by imprisonment not exceeding five days, or both. In addition, a contemnor who has violated a court order may be ordered to pay attorney's fees and costs incurred to the party who initiated the contempt proceeding.
There are more specific statutory penalties with regard to contempt of family law orders. In any court action in which a party is found in contempt of court for failure to comply with an order under the Family Code, the court must order the following:
1. On the first finding of contempt, the court must order the contemner to perform community service of up to 120 hours, or to be imprisoned for up to 120 hours, for each count of contempt.
2. On the second finding of contempt, the court must order the contemner to perform community service of up to 120 hours, in addition to ordering imprisonment of the contemner up to 120 hours for each count of contempt.
3. On the third or any subsequent finding of contempt, the court must order both of the following:
a. The court must order the contemner to serve a term of imprisonment of up to 240 hours, and to perform community service of up to 240 hours, or both such a fine and community service, for each count of contempt.
b. The court must order the contemner to pay an administrative fee, not to exceed the actual cost of the contemner's administration and supervision while assigned to a community service program as provided in this paragraph.
There are limited defenses available. Some of those defenses are lack of knowledge of court order, vague court order, and inability to comply with a court order. These defenses can be very technical and require an experienced family law attorney familiar with the specialized area of contempt.
The Law Offices of James V. Sansone offers a full range of family law legal services including divorce, domestic violence, and enforcement of court orders. We are located in Santa Rosa, California and serve clients throughout Sonoma County, Mendocino County, and Lake County, including Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Sonoma, Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Windsor, Bodega Bay, Ukiah, Willits, Clearlake, Lakeport, and Kelseyville.