California Penal Code 166 PC outlines the punishments for being in “contempt of court.” Those who are charged with violating PC 166 are usually people who perform behaviors that are considered disrespectful to the court process, including:
Inappropriately interrupting court proceedings by being excessively loud, engaging in disrespectful or disorderly conduct, or other behaviors considered to be disruptive
Willfully disobeying a lawfully issued court order
Refusing to perform your duties as a witness when in situations where you have no legal right to do so
Publishing extremely inaccurate or false accounts of court proceedings
Willfully and knowingly violating a protective or stay-away court order (also known as a restraining order) which involves domestic violence, elder abuse, or adult dependent abuse
You’ve probably seen fictional depictions of the first item on this list on television and in movies; it’s a fairly common courtroom trope. Being charged with contempt of court for being disruptive isn’t nearly as common in real life as it is on TV. Usually when someone is charged with contempt of court, it’s because they violated a court order, such as the terms of their probation. Technically, when someone violates their probation, they’re engaging in the willful disobedience of a court order, however they’re charged separately in a California probation violation hearing.
Aside from probation violations, in order to be convicted of having violated a court order, a few things have to be proven: the judge must have issued a legal order, you must have known about the order and had the ability to comply with it but willfully chosen not to do so. For example, suppose a judge grants a restraining order to the victim of domestic violence that stipulates that his/her former partner must completely avoid contact with the victim. It isn’t too difficult because they live far enough away from each other that accidentally meeting up socially isn’t likely. Despite this, the person who must refrain from initiating contact calls the victim on the phone every day. Since they willfully chose not to heed the judge’s order, it’s possible that the perpetrator will be charged with contempt of court.
Most violations of contempt of court are misdemeanors, and are punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to six months in county jail. However, there are a few exceptions with harsher sentences. The individual in the example outlined above, who has a restraining order for committing domestic violence, could face up to one year in county jail and a maximum fine of $1,000 if convicted of a misdemeanor. However, if the charge is increased to the felony level, the suspect faces a maximum fine of up to $10,000 and 16 months to three years in California state prison.