Criminal Contempt for Failure to Appear

Let’s preface this with some advice: you should always appear for every court date in a criminal case pending against you. But what can happen if you don’t show up?

Generally speaking, judges have authority over proceedings in their court and can exercise that power when someone charged with a crime fails to appear for court. The court has the authority to find someone in criminal contempt of court for failing to show up to a court appearance.

So, if you fail to appear to a proceeding, the court may issue an “Order to Show Cause” which will state that you must appear on a certain date and explain to the court why you failed to appear. The court also has the authority to issue a bench warrant, which means that you may find out the hard way—i.e., by being arrested—that you failed to appear for a court proceeding.

Failure to appear is considered indirect contempt, which occurs when the allegedly contemptuous behavior occurred outside of the presence of the court. This is different than direct contempt, which would involve actions that are committed in the immediate view and presence such as disruptive conduct during court proceedings. The distinction between direct and indirect contempt is important, because with indirect contempt such as failure to appear, the court can only impose punishment after the allegations have been properly proven.

Criminal contempt has some aspects in common with other criminal charges, like the requirement that the allegations be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and that the person accused has the presumption of innocence and a right against self-incrimination. Importantly, a person accused of criminal contempt also has the right to an attorney.

While criminal contempt affords the accused some of the due process safeguards of a criminal trial, not all apply. The accused in a criminal contempt case does not have the right to a jury trial. While someone charged with criminal contempt must be given a reasonable opportunity to present a defense, the hearing to address the allegations will occur in front of a judge and not a jury. The judge will decide if there is sufficient evidence to find that the accused is guilty of violating the court’s order.

In order to be convicted of criminal contempt, the judge must find that there is sufficient evidence that you willfully disregarded or disobeyed the authority or orders of the court. This can be distinguished from an accidental, inadvertent, or even negligent violation of a court order. In the context of failure to appear, the court must find that beyond a reasonable doubt, you intentionally did not appear. You may find that you have a good defense to an allegation of criminal contempt if there either isn’t enough evidence that your failing to appear was willful or if there is some evidence that it was unintended.

If you are found guilty of criminal contempt, the court has the authority to punish you. You could be facing a fine of up to $7,500, and/or up to 93 days in jail. You could also be sentenced to probation.

Being accused of criminal contempt for failing to appear can be a stressful experience, especially given the potential for jail and substantial fines. If you’re facing charges for criminal contempt of court, you’re going to need an attorney who can effectively represent you. Give us a call to discuss your case and explore how we can help you.

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