Georgia law recognizes two distinct types of contempt: Civil and Criminal. Ironically, the actual acts of contempt are neither civil nor criminal. Once an act has been determined to be contemptuous, it is the action the court takes in response that determines whether the act is deemed civil contempt or criminal contempt.
The distinction between the two lies in the purpose the court seeks to serve. An act is deemed civil contempt when the court imposes a conditional sanction. In such cases, the court seeks to compel an individual’s compliance with a particular term or order. One of the most common examples of civil contempt occurs in cases where a non-custodial parent is delinquent on paying child support. It is common for courts to order the non-paying parent to be held in custody or jail until he or she pays all or a portion of the arrearage. This amount is referred to as the “purge” amount.
By contrast, an act that the court seeks to punish by imposing an unconditional sanction is considered to be criminal contempt. The Georgia Court of Appeals has stated, “Criminal contempt is a crime in the ordinary sense; it is a violation of the law, a public wrong which is punishable by fine or imprisonment or both.” Garland v. State, 253 Ga. 789, 790 (1985). Because criminal contempt is considered a crime, a person accused of such an act is presumed to be innocent and must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Such a person is also entitled to assert his or her Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
Ironically, person defending against a claim of contempt may not know whether the court will treat a particular act as civil or criminal contempt. In fact, even the judge may not know until the hearing is concluded. Because of the uncertainty involved, it is always advisable to seek the assistance of counsel to assist you. There are defenses available to contempt actions, but it frequently requires an experienced family law or criminal lawyer to know what to look for and how to present the evidence to the court.
If you or someone you know is defending against allegations of contempt, contact a Gwinnett County family law attorney at The Ward Law Firm today at (770) 383-1973.