Contempt: Penalties for Ignoring a Family Court Order

It is important to understand that a family court order may cover any matter having to do with family law. This may include child custody, visitation, alimony, domestic violence, or other issues. Violation of a family court order is a serious offense that can have a significant impact on all the parties involved in the matter. If one party ignores or violates a court order from a North Carolina family court, the other party has the ability to hold the violator in contempt of court.

Contempt Explained

Under the law, there are two types of contempt - civil and criminal. Each form of contempt has its own penalties, but they are not what the general public would think. While most would think civil contempt penalties would involve paying money and criminal contempt penalties would result in jail time, this is actually not the case.

Under North Carolina law, an individual who is found in civil contempt cannot also be found in criminal contempt for the same conduct.

Civil Contempt

Civil contempt is purposed to force an individual to comply with a North Carolina court order. Generally, a civil contempt order has the ability to imprison the person charged with contempt indefinitely until he or she complies with the court order. This includes cases in which contempt occurs for failure to pay child support or for failure to comply with a non-monetary related court order. North Carolina’s civil contempt statute does not specifically address any type of punishment for civil contempt of court aside from imprisonment. That being said, in 2013 North Carolina courts ruled in Tyll v. Berry that a person found in civil contempt of court could be punished with both prison time as well as a monetary fine.

In the Tyll case, the defendant was found to be in civil contempt for violating a no-contact restraining order. While under the statute referenced it specifically states that a violator of a 50C no-contact order shall be held in contempt of court, the law is silent as to whether the contempt is civil or criminal in nature. The court determined Tyll was in civil contempt, however, still sentenced him to both jail time and a $2,500 fine for each violation of the no-contact restraining order. The Tyll decision resulted in confusion in the state of North Carolina as to whether or not a court could order an individual found to be in civil contempt to pay a monetary fine in addition to jail time or instead of jail time.

Criminal Contempt

Criminal contempt, on the other hand, is punishable by public reprimand, referred to as censure, as well as a monetary fine of up to $500.00 in addition to a minimum of 30 days of prison time. Under North Carolina law, an individual can be found to be in criminal contempt for several different behaviors. The applicable statute encompasses all behavior and includes actions that are willfully disrespected or disruptive to a court as well as those refusing to comply with probation. Of note, a 30-day minimum prison time for criminal contempt can be increased depending on the specific facts and behavior from which the contempt arises. Some examples include criminal contempt for:

  • Failure to testify, which is punishable by up to six months of prison time;
  • Failure to pay child support, which can result in up to 120 days of prison time;

Behavior that is considered criminal contempt that is not purposefully contemptuous or where a North Carolina court had not previously warned as improper is not punishable by a monetary fine or imprisonment. Two exceptions to this rule, however, include:

  • When an individual publishes a recklessly inaccurate report of court proceedings, threatening the administration of justice; however, an individual cannot be punished for truthfully publishing court proceedings; and
  • When an individual improperly communicates with a juror.
Protective Orders: Domestic Violence

Sometimes a North Carolina court order will be in the form of a 50-B domestic violence protective order (DVPO). North Carolina family courts have the authority to grant a 50-B domestic violence protection order if there are allegations of bodily injury, fear of bodily injury, continual harassment, rape, or other abuse by one party who has a personal relationship with the other. If the accused violates the DVPO, the party who sought the DVPO may pursue both civil and criminal recourse against the individual.

It is critical to understand that violating a Waxhaw DVPO is against the law. Moreover, the party who initially sought the DVPO can report the violation to the local police or sheriff’s office and, if the reporting does not result in the violator’s immediate arrest, then he or she can request that a magistrate’s office in the lower district court in North Carolina issue a criminal warrant. In addition to the aforementioned, the party who initially sought the DVPO has the ability to file a “motion for order to show cause in a DVPO” in a North Carolina civil court. If the court approves the motion, the defendant - or the person who violated the DVPO - will be held in civil contempt. He or she can be ordered by the court to pay a monetary fine and/or spend time in jail.

North Carolina law makes the violation of a valid DVPO a Class A1 misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to 150 days in jail, depending on the violator’s prior criminal record, if any. Subsequent violations of DVPOs are considered a Class H felony under North Carolina law and are punishable by 20 to 33 months in prison.

Family Law Help in Waxhaw

Notably, a parent can still be found in contempt of court for violating a family law court order even if the refusal is based on a fear for the child’s safety, according to North Carolina’s Court of Appeals. If you are facing violation of a family court order, or know someone who is, contact the experienced family law attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC. We have years of experience navigating the family law courts throughout North Carolina and understand the crossover between family and criminal law. Contact us today for an initial consultation.