What is a Contempt Citation?
Authored By: Colorado Legal Services
1. What is Contempt?
Contempt is a legal phrase that means a person has acted in a way that is disobedient or disrespectful towards a court of law in a way that defies the authority, justice, and dignity of the court. Contempt is a very serious matter and can be punishable with jail time. Direct contempt can occur in the courtroom, where the judge or another court officer witnesses it, such as if you talk out of turn during a hearing after being told not to. Indirect contempt can occur outside the courtroom and a third party can bring it to the attention of the court by filing a contempt citation against you. The most common example of indirect contempt is if you fail to do something that a court ordered you to do.
2. Someone filed a contempt citation against me. What does it mean?
When someone files a contempt citation against you, it means they are asking the Judge to punish you because they believe you have violated a court order. A court order is a formal decision issued by a judge, either in writing or verbally in the courtroom. To get the court to issue the citation, they file a motion saying what order they believe you violated and how you violated it. The court then issues the citation, which orders you to appear in court on a certain date to "show cause", or explain why you should not be held in contempt. In other words, you are ordered to physically come to court to explain to the judge why you are not guilty of violating the court's order. This citation must be personally served on you, which means delivered to you in person. Service by mail is not good enough.
2. What do I need to do?
Once the citation has been served on you, you must appear in court at the date and time on the citation. If you do not, the court may issue a warrant for your arrest. When you appear at the first hearing, the court will advise you of your rights. Normally, the case is not actually heard that day. If the person filing the motion is asking you to be punished by a fine or jail time, you may have the right to be represented by a lawyer. If your income is low enough to qualify, ask for the court to appoint a lawyer to represent you. If the court appoints a lawyer to represent you, that person is only responsible for representing you in the contempt citation, not in the case itself.
3. What happens at the hearing?
After advising you of your rights, the court will then set a date for the hearing on the citation itself. At that hearing, the party accusing you of being in contempt has the burden of proof to show that (1) there was a valid court order, (2) that you knew about the order, (3) that you had the ability to comply with the order (meaning you had the ability to do what the order said you had to do), and (4) that you willfully violated the order. If the moving party proves all of those things, the Judge can punish you in different ways. (The moving party means the person who filed the contempt citation against you.) You may be ordered to take immediate steps to comply with the court order, you may be charged a fine or be ordered to pay the moving party’s court costs and attorney’s fees, or you may be sentenced to time in jail for violating the court order. How the Judge decides to punish you may also be decided at a future hearing.
4. Are there other ways to settle this matter?
Often, contempt citations are settled by negotiation. If you are served with a citation that says you are failing to follow a court order – like turning over children for parenting time, or making a required financial payment to the moving party – you may wish to take immediate steps to fix the violation. Sometimes contempt citations are dropped if you immediately stop violating the court order. In other cases this is not possible because the citation may state that your past actions violated a court order and these cannot be changed or fixed. If the moving party (the party or person who filed the contempt citation against you) is represented by a lawyer, s/he may contact you to discuss settlement. If you reach an agreement, make sure that the agreement is either written down, signed by everyone, and given to the court, or that the agreement is stated in court on the record. That means that someone describes the agreement in open court, and all parties state that they agree to it.