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Contempt: Penalties for Ignoring a Family Court Order

Family court orders can cover any matter of family law topic—child custody or visitation, alimony, domestic violence—and violation of a family court order can have an enormous impact on all parties’ lives. If one party ignores or violates an order from family court, the other party can file to hold that person in contempt of court. There are two types of contempt—civil and criminal. Each has its own penalties, but these are surprisingly contradictory to what you might think. You would think that civil penalties usually involve paying money and criminal penalties mean jail time, right? Not in the world of contempt.

Civil Contempt of Court

The purpose of civil contempt is to force a person to comply with a court order. In most cases (including contempt for failure to pay child support or to comply with a non-monetary court order) a civil contempt order can imprison someone indefinitely until they comply with the court order.

A person found in civil contempt cannot be found in criminal contempt for the same conduct in North Carolina.

The civil contempt statute (written law) in North Carolina does not address any sort of punishment for civil contempt of court besides imprisonment. However, our courts ruled in 2013 in Tyll v. Berry that a person could receive both prison time and a monetary fine as punishment for being found civil contempt of court.

In Tyll, the defendant was held in civil contempt for violating N.C.G.S. 50C-10, or a no-contact/restraining order. This statute only states that a violator of a 50C no-contact order will be held in contempt of court; it does not specify whether that contempt is civil or criminal. The court interpreted it as civil contempt, but then sentenced him to both jail time and a $2,500 fine for each violation of the no-contact order. This has resulted in some confusion in North Carolina regarding whether a court could order a party in civil contempt to pay a fine as well as or instead of jail time.

Criminal Contempt of Court

Criminal contempt, by contrast, is punishable by censure (public reprimand), a fine up to $500 and a baseline of 30 days imprisonment.

A person can be found in criminal contempt for a number of different behaviors. The same statute, N.C.G.S. 5A-11, covers all of this behavior and includes actions willfully disruptive or disrespectful behavior to a court and refusing to comply with probation. The 30-day baseline punishment for criminal contempt can be increased depending on the behavior from which the contempt stems; for example:

  • Criminal contempt for failure to testify is punishable by up to six months imprisonment
  • Criminal contempt for failure to pay child support can result in up to 120 days imprisonment

Behavior found in criminal contempt that is not purposefully contemptuous or that the court had not already warned was improper should not be punishable by fine or imprisonment. The two exceptions to this are:

  1. When a person publishes a recklessly inaccurate report of court proceedings that threatens the administration of justice
    1. However, a person cannot be punished for a truthful publishing of court proceedings
  2. Improper communication with a juror
Domestic Violence Protective Orders

Sometimes, unfortunately a family court order will take the form of a 50-B domestic violence protective order (“DVPO”). If there are allegations of attempts at bodily injury, fear of bodily injury, continual harassment, rape or other abuse, the courts in North Carolina can grant a DVPO against one party that has a personal relationship with another. If that party violates the DVPO, the other party can pursue civil and criminal recourse against that person.

Violating a DVPO is against the law and a partner can 1) report it to the police or sheriff, and if this does not result in immediate arrest, 2) ask a magistrate’s office in lower district court for a criminal warrant.

The other party can also file a “motion for order to show cause in a DVPO” in civil court. If the court approves, the defendant will be held in civil contempt and can be ordered to pay a fine and/or receive time in jail.

Violating a valid DVPO in North Carolina is a Class A1 misdemeanor, and can be punishable by up to 150 days in jail depending on the person’s previous criminal record. A subsequent violation of the protective order is a Class H felony, punishable by 20 to 33 months in prison.

What if I only Violated a Family Court Order because I Feared for My Child’s Safety?

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled that a parent can still be found in contempt of court for violating a visitation order even if the refusal stems from a fear of the child’s safety. If you are in a similar situation it is critical to speak with your family law attorney about what action to take next.

If you are facing violation of a family court order by yourself or your partner, it is important to have the help of a skilled family law attorney fighting for your interests. Arnold & Smith, PLLC has attorneys that have been navigating the family law courts throughout North Carolina for years and are familiar with the periodic crossover between family and criminal law. Contact us today for an initial consultation.