When we think of crime generally, we most often think of crime that targets individual victims (murder, kidnapping, and abuse and neglect, for example) or specific property (arson, burglary, and theft, for example). There are other crimes, however, perhaps less commonly considered, that target the public as their victim.
Under Nevada law, crimes against the public include, broadly:
- crimes against the public peace
- crimes against public decency and good morals
- crimes against public health and safety
- crimes against public justice
One type of crime that falls into the last category – crimes against the public justice – is the crime of contempt.
What is Criminal Contempt?
Criminal contempt can be broadly defined as behavior that disturbs, interrupts or otherwise obstructs a court’s order or a judicial proceeding. Under Nevada state law, there are specific behaviors that constitute the misdemeanor offense of criminal contempt:
- disorderly, contemptuous or other behavior that tends to disrupt or demonstrate appropriate respect
- noise or other disturbances and breaches of the peace that interrupt judicial proceedings
- refusing to be sworn as a witness or refusing to answer a legal and proper inquiry
- willful disobedience of or resistance to the court’s lawful process or mandate
Criminal contempt in Nevada also includes the false or inaccurate publication of court proceedings, and acting as an attorney or court officer without proper license or authority.
Violation of the criminal contempt statute can lead to the imposition of fines (up to $1,000) and/or a prison term (up to 6 months).
Nevada state law also includes a civil law chapter on Contempts. Civil contempt includes, among other things:
- disorderly, contemptuous or insolent behavior
- breach of the peace in or around the court
- disobedience or resistance to a court order
A violation of Nevada’s civil contempt laws can also lead to a fine (up to $500) or imprisonment (not more than 25 days).
Criminal or Civil Contempt?
Whether a contempt order is classified as civil or criminal is not always clear. According to the Nevada Supreme Court, the difference between a criminal contempt order and a civil contempt order is whether the order is intended as punishment (criminal) or to coerce compliance with a court order (civil).
Lewis v. Lewis, a 2016 Nevada Supreme Court case highlights one reason that the distinction between civil and criminal contempt is important — a defendant in a criminal case has a right to counsel. In the Lewis case, the court issued a contempt order against an ex-husband because he failed to pay child support and take his child to tutoring class (which was a requirement of a prior court order). Based on the facts of that case and the specific contempt order at issue, the court found that the order was criminal, and that not allowing the ex-husband to exercise his right to counsel violated his constitutional rights.
The most common occurrence of contempt is in the civil context. For example, if you enter into a plea agreement to resolve your case and the courts orders you to complete a class, pay a fine, complete community service and stay out of trouble during the pendency of the case, and you fail to fulfill any of those court orders, then you can be found to be in contempt of court. In this situation, the court has two (2) main choices- impose an underlying suspended sentence or impose a penalty under the civil contempt statute, such as increasing the fine amount or ordering you to spend time in jail for breaking the court’s order.
If you have questions about criminal contempt laws in Nevada, would like to know more about these laws, or have been arrested for or charged with other crimes against public justice, contact an experienced Las Vegas criminal defense lawyer at Lobo Law.