Thursday, August 13, 2009

Contempt of court: Not a joking matter

Not even when you “yawn”

By Yemti Harry Ndienla

Courts have inherent power to control courtroom behavior and to enforce court orders. Contempt of court according to wise geek is a charge which can be laid against someone for interrupting the process of justice - when someone disobeys a court order, shows disrespect for the judge, or disrupts judicial proceedings in a court of law.

There are two types of contempt – civil and criminal contempt. On the other hand, contempt can be either direct (occurs in the judge's presence and disrupts court' proceedings) or indirect (occurs outside the immediate presence of the judge).

A charge of contempt, if proved, can result in fines and jail time. Though many people are familiar with the concept of contempt of court, since it tends to come up in courtroom dramas, many aren’t. And this is no defense.
Additionally, there are several different forms of contempt of court. In all cases, they are rooted in the idea that a courtroom and its officers demand respect, both out of common decency and because a court acts as a legal authority. Failure to respect the court can compromise the course of justice, potentially causing a mistrial or compromising the integrity of a trial. In order to prove a charge of contempt of court, it must be proved that the contemnor was aware of the court order or rule which was violated, that he or she was able to comply with the order, and that the contemnor failed to do so. If proved, the sentence for contempt varies, depending on the severity of the crime. Whatever the case, contempt is treated very seriously.

Civil contempt of court involves a failure to obey an order from a court. It can be purged by obeying the order. For example, someone may speak out of turn in a courtroom during trial proceedings, disrespecting the basic rules of the courtroom. The judge can indicate that he or she will find the speaker in contempt of court unless the speaker sits down and remains silent until it is appropriate to talk. Or a witness could fail to answer a question, in which case the judge will instruct him or her to answer or be held in contempt of court.

Meanwhile criminal contempt of court actually hinders the operations of the court to include a failure to produce evidence when subpoenaed, or threats to the judge, jury, or lawyers. Someone who yells at the judge, for example, could find him or herself accused of contempt of court.

Those of us who frequent court houses in one way or the other would certainly remember notorious judges who spare no effort in sanctioning people for contempt of court. Sometime last year, over a dozen spectators were jailed at the central prison in Buea for contempt of court – failing to identify a spectator who’s mobile phone rang during court proceedings. Typically spectators who scream or shout profanity during sentencing had been jailed at a far higher rate than others.

During the famous Esseme murder trial which took place at the Fako high court in Buea, a colleague narrowly escaped contempt of court for taking notes without informing court authority. So too was a man who claimed to be a pupil lawyer.
These may sound funny tempting people to believe such can only happen in Cameroon, where justice is bought and sold like a commodity. Wrong! Contempt of court is punishable all over the world, and its no joking matter. Not even in the US.

A Circuit Judge here, Daniel Rozak, recently jailed a 33 year old man for contempt of court. According to Chicago Tribune, the Judge jailed Clifton Williams, for yawning in the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, in the state of IIIinos, during court proceedings. Williams who was sentenced to Six months in jail - the maximum penalty for criminal contempt without a jury trial was in court to listen to his cousin Jason Mayfield, who was pleading guilty to drug possession. “As Circuit Judge Daniel Rozak handed down the cousin's sentence - 2 years' probation, Williams, 33, stretched and let out a very ill-timed yawn”, said the newspaper.
"I was flabbergasted because I didn't realize a judge could do that," Williams' father, Clifton Williams Sr, told the Chicago Tribune. Adding, "It seems to me like a yawn is an involuntary action."

Though court officials believe "it was not a simple yawn” but “a loud and boisterous attempt to disrupt the proceedings" Jason Mayfield, the cousin of Williams who was pleading guilty at the time, agued, “it was not an outrageous yawn." However, the case Rozak's order sentencing Williams to 6 months in jail found that he (Williams) "raised his hands while at the same time making a loud yawning sound that caused the judge to break from the proceedings?

Whatever the case Judges have broad discretion under the law, which defines contempt as acts that embarrass, hinder or obstruct the court in its administration of justice or lessen its authority or dignity. “As long as the sentence is not longer than 6 months, there is no review of the case - unless the offender appeals to the judge or a higher court”.

"We want judges to be able to manage the courtroom ... but we have some concern that when the contempt is personal, judges might react too harshly," University of Chicago law Professor Adam Samaha., told Chicago Tribune. The learned Professor believes “Contempt that happens right in the judge's face is likely to trigger an emotional reaction." Although critics accept as true that Judges like Rozak are running the type of strict courtroom that was common a few decades ago, others say they are just being "tough but fair".

Despite the fact that judges in other court areas might have been lenient by passing less severe sentences for seemingly more flagrant offenses contempt of court is no teasing matter. As a general rule, you will not be at risk of being charged with contempt of court if you behave courteously in a courtroom, complying with all orders from court officials. You need not be afraid of court officials, but it is a very good idea to be respectful, treating them as you would wish to be treated.

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