Every practicing attorney and judge has by now likely seen the video of the Texas attorney who appeared at a court hearing conducted via Zoom in the form of a fluffy, white kitten. “I’m here live. I’m not a cat,” has emerged as the mantra of the week. The enthusiasm with which the recording has been shared reflects both the ubiquity of web-based hearings and the technological mishaps that can derail them. But technology is not the only thing that can go awry in a remote proceeding. Sometimes the problems are more fundamentally human, arising from behaviors that, were they committed in the courtroom, might lead to a finding of direct criminal contempt. Repeatedly talking over a judge or another litigant, arguing with a judge after having been asked to be quiet, cursing at a judge or another person present, using a racial slur, or appearing in a state of undress are examples. When a person engages in this sort of behavior in a remote proceeding, may the judge summarily punish the act as direct criminal contempt? Or must the judge issue an order to show cause and address the contemptuous behavior in a subsequent proceeding?
If a defendant has fully served a term of imprisonment, can he or she be further imprisoned for not paying a fine or costs?
When setting conditions of pretrial release in domestic violence cases, magistrates and judges often order a defendant not to contact the victim. Those directives clearly apply to a defendant once he is released from jail subject to those conditions. But what about a defendant who remains in jail? Is he also subject to a no contact condition included on a release order? The court of appeals addressed that issue yesterday in State v. Mitchell.
This scenario will sound familiar to many criminal attorneys: you’re in court, the DA calls the next case, and the judge asks John Q. Defendant how he pleads?
“Your Honor, I am not ‘JOHN Q. DEFENDANT,’ which is a fictional corporate entity. I am a natural living being, appearing pro per on behalf of John Q. Defendant, free citizen, for the limited purpose of challenging jurisdiction….” What follows next is a confusing series of questions to the judge about standing and injured parties, and quasi-legal arguments full of buzz words about the U.C.C., admiralty court, strawmen, right to travel, capital letters, red ink, fiduciaries, de facto government, accepted for value, etc. On and on and on it goes, for however long the court is willing to listen.
Yep, you’ve got a “sovereign citizen” on your hands.
Readers may have different opinions on the best way to handle these defendants in court (which I hope you will share in the comments), but I recommend taking the simplest approach of all: don’t play the game.
One of the first posts I wrote on this blog was about the punishment for criminal contempt. The post included a discussion about whether sentences for contempt could be run consecutively—something our appellate courts hadn’t yet ruled on at the time. In State v. Burrow, decided last week, the court of appeals approved a trial court’s orders sentencing a defendant to six consecutive 30-day terms of imprisonment for contempt.
Courts around the country have struggled to address inappropriate cell phone usage by jurors. Some judges have used their contempt powers to deal with the issue. In Oregon, a judge held a juror in contempt for texting during a trial, and the juror spent a night in jail as a result. In Florida, a judge cited a juror for contempt for using Facebook during trial. And now, the issue has cropped up here in North Carolina. Last week, Superior Court Judge Milton “Toby” Fitch held a juror in a civil case in contempt for using his cell phone to take notes about the trial, and sentenced the juror to 30 days in jail. The Wilson Times has the story here. The News and Observer has an AP story with some additional details here.
The murky law of contempt — particularly the distinction between civil and criminal contempt — got even more confusing last month with the Court of Appeals’ decision in Tyll v. Berry. The court said that civil contempt may include a fine, not just imprisonment, and can require the fine to be paid to a private … Read more
Sentences for criminal contempt may be suspended. That has been understood as a matter of case law for a while, see Bishop v. Bishop, 90 N.C. App 499 (1988), and it became clear as a matter of statute for some contemnors in 2009 with the addition of G.S. 5A-12(a)(3), S.L. 2009-335. That subdivision allows a … Read more
Two cases this month from the Court of Appeals, one published and one not, offer different perspectives on the meaning of an appeal for a “trial de novo” in superior court. Neither of the cases speaks directly to what a trial de novo is, but they offer an opportunity to think about the difference between … Read more
A couple of this blog’s recent Friday News Roundups have linked offbeat stories about contempt and cellphones. In the first a Michigan judge held himself in contempt and ordered a $25 fine when his cellphone rang in court. The second story was the federal Sixth Circuit upholding a 30-day contempt sentence for a courtroom spectator … Read more