What is the criminal contempt of court maximum penalty? Contempt of court is not in the books so we have to look at the case law for the answer.
What is the maximum sentence possible for a contempt of court conviction?
Hey, If you want to more know about contempt of court then make sure to check out Episode 017 of the Criminal Nuggets Podcast.
That show also featured a neat little contempt of court cheat sheet that described the differences between civil and criminal contempt of court.
Download My Contempt of Court Cheat Sheet
… But now back to our maximum penalty possible for criminal contempt of court story…
Maximum Penalties Should Be Known
So, I am working on a ultimate sentencing guide, checklist and index. It is basically an index that serves as a guide and checklist for Illinois sentencing.
And contempt of court came up.
It is not in the criminal code. It is a judicial thing. I get it. However, I think it is safe to say that best practice is to have it all written down so everybody knows what they are looking at.
I do believe it is important to document, list and make official every human activity that the State may seek to punish with imprisonment. Add criminal contempt of court to that list.
That is why I feel that if a maximum sentence can be ascertained from the case law for contempt of court, then we should recognize and document it.
Contempt of Court Maximum Penalty Is …
What is the maximum penalty possible for contempt of court in Illinois?
I feel safe in calling it for contempt of court.
I’m saying it is 10 years.
Two Cases Helped Figure it Out
People v. Geiger
See People v. Geiger, 2015 IL App (3d) 130457 (04/17/2015).
Defendant, in this case, had already testified against two co-defendants in a double murder but refused to testify against the third guy.
Said he was pleading “the fifth”.
Later, in court he said he just forgot the details. I hate it when that happens with witnesses.
So, it was unclear why he suddenly refused to testify.
The reviewing court said 10 years for this “assault” on the judicial system was not grossly disproportionate to the nature of the contemptuous act when considered in light of defendant’s previous criminal history. Meaning, 10 years for refusing to testify sounded good to them.
Originally, the trial judge imposed a sentence of 20 years!
The Illinois Supreme Court reversed that in an earlier proceeding.
People v. Perez-Gonzalez
See People v. Perez-Gonzalez, 2014 IL App (2d) 120946 (06/26/2014).
Here, defendant plead guilty to murder and agreed to testify against his co-defendants.
His “deal” was that he would testify and in return his sentence for his part in the murder would be 20 years. He would plead for twenty and avoid a 15 year gun add-on.
Defendant refused to testify when the trial came.
He lost the “deal”. The 15 year gun add-on was put back on the table and he was given an additional 10 years for contempt of court for refusing to testify.
Total time for defendant jumped to 45 years. It started with 20 years from the original murder plea, plus 15 from the gun add-on, plus 10 for the contempt of court. Ouch!
His little dance with the court cost him 25 extra years.
In determining an appropriate sentence for criminal contempt, the appellate court explained that a trial judge should consider the following factors:
(1) the extent of the willful and deliberate defiance of the court’s order
(2) the seriousness of the consequences of the contumacious behavior
(3) the necessity of effectively terminating the defendant’s defiance as required by the public interest, and
(4) the importance of deterring such acts in the future.
The appellate court noted that this was a murder trial and the need for deterring others from willful contempt was great.
I say these cases are instructive in determining the maximum penalty for contempt of court because that was the sentence in those cases.
The cases cited above involved pretty serious contemptuous behavior. The defendant in each case refused to testify in a serious murder trial.
To be accurate, though, I’d have to say that the maximum is probably 10 years.
The cases don’t actually come out and just say that they won’t allow anything over ten years.
Maximum is Probably 10-“ish” Years
I guess it is possible for a later case to come by and say, for example, 12 years. If there were different facts, like somebody actually being acquitted for murder because another person refuses to testify then it is possible an appellate court would let 12 years slide.
However, I do feel confident in saying 10 years is the maximum sentence possible for contempt of court.
Why does this question matter?
I think it is important to have a well documented maximum sentence for contempt of court for the same reasons it should exist for every other crime.
We want to promote a fair and even application of society's harshest penalties and prevent arbitrary enforcement.
Any just criminal system has to keep it fair. Arbitrary enforcement is the bane of fairness. Arbitrary enforcement runs counter to our goals.
When judges and prosecutors don’t have a known limit to work with, arbitrary results are the likely result.
I mean, if we just look at Geiger a little more closely, we see that the trial judge initially went with 20 years!
Yes, that was a double murder; and it was a serious case.
But the judge seemed to fall back on nothing more than his notion of an “assault” on the judicial system.
What the hell is that? Who gets to define the severity of the “assault”?
Reminding the court and the state of the 10 year limit and the four factors of discretion, would go a long way in preventing arbitrary sentencing in a contempt of court hearing.