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Understanding the Types of Contempt and Its Changing Nature in Response to Due Process Requirements

Understanding the Types of Contempt and Its Changing Nature in Response to Due Process Requirements

Having a contempt petition (sometimes called a rule to show cause) filed against one in a civil or criminal case is generally unsettling. What is the purpose? Generally, civil and criminal contempt is the legal process by which trial courts enforce their orders and/or maintain decorum in the courtroom. A key and relatively recent Indiana case, Stanke,1 has refined civil contempt and it, along with the array of contempt types and proceedings, is addressed in this blog post.

The first (and least common) type of contempt is direct contempt.2 This has multiple components. Most broadly, direct contempt is the stuff of television—such as where there is a fight between litigants in the courtroom. This is quasi- civil and criminal in nature, as are all contempt cases; and it may result in incarceration after a hearing.

However, a hearing before a contempt finding or adjudication is required to afford due process; in other words, a person alleged to be in direct contempt is entitled to, among other rights, legal counsel. The same judge will likely hear the direct contempt so counsel is prudent—if not almost necessary—consideration. Any contempt that is found to be true and adjudicated true has potentially significant implications as it shows disrespect for authority.

Aside from the obvious harm to one’s case, it may result in an independent criminal charge, such as battery, which is rude, angry on insolent touching. So again, counsel is prudent. In theory, a person (not limited to litigants, but those in the courtroom), may have both findings—direct contempt and a later criminal charge3 and conviction, depending upon the facts underpinning the direct contempt.

High emotions are expected in courts and are tolerated by Indiana’s impartial judges, but there becomes a point where bad behavior diminishes the sanctity of the courtroom and administration of justice. This is where a judge may find a litigant or participant or observer in direct contempt that may result, in some cases, in him or her being charged with a crime.

In what is not often referred to as direct or indirect contempt terminology is the situation where an independent crime (may until proven) lies where a litigant violates domestic no-contact orders and has contact with a witness or victim in a criminal case. Ordinarily, contempt is not the focus or finding of the court. This is because violation of the order is the very crime the court’s order sought to prevent.

This too requires a hearing and due process, so a prudent person facing criminal contempt or an independent crime would do well to engage counsel and use him or her to make the best case or defense possible to reduce the crime, plea or avoid prosecution or conviction altogether. This presupposes guilt, which is never the burden of the litigant or criminal defendant.

The second type of contempt, which as noted at the outset of this blog has had a recent case law development, is indirect contempt. This is a far more common type of contempt. The general rule is a person who willfully disobeys any order lawfully issued by any court of record or by the proper officer of the court is guilty of indirect contempt of court.

So for example, if a party refuses to transfer property ordered in a civil case or divorce final order, a contempt petition may be filed and the court may issue an order compelling the property, legal fees (if allowed by statute) and, where the contempt order is not then followed, or there has been a pattern of non-compliance, incarceration until the property is produced.

The Stanke case reflects an important development in Indiana law; it makes clear that in the numerous contempts filed by litigants and their counsels and heard by Indiana trial courts each year, substantive and procedural due process, as a constitutional right applicable to the state by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, must be provided.

Due process includes notice and the opportunity to be heard, as well as the court’s compliance with the rule to show cause statutes. Among other things, this mandates that the alleged contemnor has clear notice containing detailed factual allegations of each violation of a court order. This keeps the contempt powers of a court in balance with litigants right due process of law. Broadly, it supports our Constitution and the freedoms we enjoy.

In the final analysis, contempt is a serious issue and may have criminal implications. Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. advocates handles contempt cases throughout the state, both in filings and defensive positions. This blog is written for general educational purposes and is not intended as specific legal advice or a solicitation for representation. It is an advertisement.


  1. Stanke, 43 N.E.3d 245 (Ind.Ct.App.2015). There are a number of statutes that address contempt found throughout the Indiana Code.
  2. This is ordinarily brought by the judge.
  3. This is ordinarily brought by a county prosecutor.
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Ciyou & Dixon, P.C., is a law firm located in Indianapolis, Indiana. We serve clients in six core practice areas: family lawappellate practicefirearms lawgeneral practicepersonal injury and criminal law.

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Based in Indianapolis and founded in 1995, Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. is a niche law firm focused on successfully dealing with the complexities of divorce, high-conflict child custody and family law. Known for their ability to solve extremely complex situations with high quality work and responsiveness, Ciyou & Dixon will guide you every step of the way. The family law attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. will help you precisely identify your objectives and the means to reach your desired result. In addition, this practice focus is augmented by the firm's other three core areas, namely appellate advocacy, civil practice, and firearms law. Life is uncertain. Be certain of your counselSM.

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