Criminal Contempt charges are very serious and can be quite difficult to defend against in some circumstances. The overwhelming majority of the Criminal Contempt cases pursued by prosecutors involve violations of orders of protection, and usually are classified as “domestic violence,” meaning that the complainant and defendant are or were in some sort of romantic or familial relationship.
The least serious of these Criminal Contempt charges is Criminal Contempt in the Second Degree, Penal Law § 215.50, a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison. The statute reads as follows:
A person is guilty of criminal contempt in the second degree when he engages in any of the following conduct: 1. Disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior, committed during the sitting of a court, in its immediate view and presence and directly tending to interrupt its proceedings or to impair the respect due to its authority; or 2. Breach of the peace, noise, or other disturbance, directly tending to interrupt a court's proceedings; or 3. Intentional disobedience or resistance to the lawful process or other mandate of a court except in cases involving or growing out of labor disputes as defined by subdivision two of section seven hundred fifty-three-a of the judiciary law; or 4. Contumacious and unlawful refusal to be sworn as a witness in any court proceeding or, after being sworn, to answer any legal and proper interrogatory; or 5. Knowingly publishing a false or grossly inaccurate report of a court's proceedings; or 6. Intentional failure to obey any mandate, process or notice, issued pursuant to articles sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, or eighteen-a of the judiciary law, or to rules adopted pursuant to any such statute or to any special statute establishing commissioners of jurors and prescribing their duties or who refuses to be sworn as provided therein; or 7. On or along a public street or sidewalk within a radius of two hundred feet of any building established as a courthouse, he calls aloud, shouts, holds or displays placards or signs containing written or printed matter, concerning the conduct of a trial being held in such courthouse or the character of the court or jury engaged in such trial or calling for or demanding any specified action or determination by such court or jury in connection with such trial.
The most relevant subsection of the above statute is 3, as prosecutions under the other subsections are exceedingly rare. It is this subsection that is used to prosecute violations of orders of protection, in that an order of protection is a “lawful mandate of a court”. Prosecutors typically prove violations of orders of protection by demonstrating that the defendant against whom an order of protection was in effect made contact in person, over the telephone, or via text message or email, with the person protected by the order. These cases can be especially strong for a prosecutor because oftentimes the cooperation of the complaining witness is not even necessary to prove the violation. After all, the prosecutor can sometimes introduce violating emails or telephone records or text messages without calling the complainant as a witness – representatives of the phone company or internet service provider can introduce these records as “business records.”
Sometimes, police officers or third party witnesses discover the complainants and defendants voluntarily being together (even living together) in violation of an order of protection. In these cases, the defendant can be arrested and convicted even if the complainant witness explains that she invited the defendant over to see her. This is because the complaining witness does not have the power or authority to negate an order of protection – only a judge can do that. Thus, a prosecutor can convict a defendant for violating an order of protection – and send him to jail – even in cases in which the complainant badly wishes the defendant not to be convicted. Similarly, a defendant is not legally allowed to respond to a protected complainant via telephone, email or text, even if the complainant reaches out to him and begs him to respond.
The charges can be especially serious when defendants attempt to intimidate, assault or menace the people protected by orders of protection. For example, Criminal Contempt in the First Degree, Penal Law Section 215.51, makes it a felony – punishable by state prison in excess of one year – where a defendant:
intentionally places or attempts to place a person for whose protection such order was issued in reasonable fear of physical injury, serious physical injury or death by displaying a deadly weapon, dangerous instrument or what appears to be a pistol, revolver, rifle, shotgun, machine gun or other firearm or by means of a threat or threats; or (ii) intentionally places or attempts to place a person for whose protection such order was issued in reasonable fear of physical injury, serious physical injury or death by repeatedly following such person or engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts over a period of time; or (iii) intentionally places or attempts to place a person for whose protection such order was issued in reasonable fear of physical injury, serious physical injury or death when he or she communicates or causes a communication to be initiated with such person by mechanical or electronic means or otherwise, anonymously or otherwise, by telephone, or by telegraph, mail or any other form of written communication; or (iv) with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm a person for whose protection such order was issued, repeatedly makes telephone calls to such person, whether or not a conversation ensues, with no purpose of legitimate communication; or (v) with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm a person for whose protection such order was issued, strikes, shoves, kicks or otherwise subjects such other person to physical contact or attempts or threatens to do the same; or (vi) by physical menace, intentionally places or attempts to place a person for whose protection such order was issued in reasonable fear of death, imminent serious physical injury or physical injury.
A defendant can be charged with the even more serious Class D felony of Aggravated Criminal Contempt (Penal Law § 215.52) when he actually causes physically injury to someone protected by an order of protection. Specifically, a person is guilty of this crime where:
1. in violation of a duly served order of protection, or such order of which the defendant has actual knowledge because he or she was present in court when such order was issued, or an order of protection issued by a court of competent jurisdiction in another state, territorial or tribal jurisdiction, he or she intentionally or recklessly causes physical injury or serious physical injury to a person for whose protection such order was issued;
In addition to the potential jail sentences, convictions for Criminal Contempt can have other serious consequences for defendants. First and foremost, judges routinely set very high bail for defendants with convictions for Criminal Contempt on their “rap sheets” (criminal records). Also, people previously convicted of Criminal Contempt can face more serious “bump-up” felony charges if they are charged again with Criminal Contempt (see Penal Law Section 215.51[c] and Penal Law Sections 251.52 and ).
If you or a loved one have been accused of Criminal Contempt, you should strongly consider contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.