A Comparison of Criminal and Civil Contempt

By: Christian Maroni

Indirect criminal and civil contempt arise from out of court conduct that is inconsistent with a Judge’s order. An action in violation of a court order can justify both civil and criminal contempt sanctions simultaneously. However civil and criminal contempt sanctions are distinguished by the character and purpose of the penalty involved.

A criminal contempt penalty is meant to punish the party for violating a court order, and to emphasize that the authority of the court shall not be undermined. Criminal contempt sanctions can take many forms, the most common being incarceration and unconditional fines. Because criminal contempt is an actual crime, the accused party is afforded the same due process rights as any other person charged with a crime.

On the other hand, civil contempt sanctions are imposed for the benefit of the harmed party. These sanctions are used to induce compliance with a court order or to compensate a party for any damages caused by the breach. If the sanction is used to induce obedience, the penalty will be conditional upon future compliance with the court’s order. If the sanction is to compensate for damages, the damages must be proven with competent evidence.

Courts in Florida have the discretion to impose an even harsher penalty than the sanctions discussed above. They have the inherent power to strike a party’s pleadings and enter a default judgment in the case of a blatant violation of a court order. A “deliberate and Contumacious” disregard for the authority of the court will justify this penalty. Ensuring the efficient and fair administration of justice demands that Judges retain this power. Without it, meritless and malicious claims would prosper, and dockets would clog with cases frozen in discovery.

The judicial system would be toothless when faced with a party refusing to comply with the lawful orders of Judges if it had no way to enforce its rulings Any decision made by the courts would unquestionably become unenforceable. Civil and criminal contempt charges become especially important in cases seeking equitable remedies. Injunctions would become meaningless and their administration would be left completely to the good will of the burdened party. That is a system of law that would ignore justice and encourage parties to take matters into their own hands. Such a system would rapidly deteriorate, and the consequences would be weighty and widespread.

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