When someone violates a court order, the other person can file a motion asking the court to hold him or her in contempt. In family law, judges enter orders for child custody and support, alimony and marital property division, among others. Our statutes define the way a judge can require people to obey court orders, up to and including incarceration. There are two kinds of contempt, civil or criminal.
After the judge determines the order is valid and still in effect, a judge must be certain the “purpose of the order may still be served by compliance with the order.” NC Gen. Stat. §5-21(a). To enforce an order by civil contempt, someone must willfully fail to comply with the order. He or she must have the ability to comply or take reasonable measures that would enable the person to comply. For instance, if you are required to pay child support by court order but you are in a bad vehicle accident and unable to work some period of time because you were in the hospital for a month, you might be able to prove you were unable to comply with the order. That doesn’t mean the judge will cancel or reduce the child support obligation. It just means that the order is not being enforced by holding you in contempt and incarcerating you. There are other ways people can enforce orders.
Incarceration For Civil Contempt
The purpose of civil contempt is not to punish someone as is the case with criminal contempt. Instead, the purpose of incarceration is to force the person to comply with the order. If a parent owes back child support, he or she is taken into the custody of the sheriff until the payments are made. The judge must order certain release conditions called “purge conditions” because doing those things will allow the person to purge or rid himself or herself of contempt. It is said that in civil contempt, the person incarcerated holds the keys to the jail because all he or she has to do is comply with the order. The person refusing to comply with an order of the court may be initially incarcerated up to 90 days. If there is no compliance, the judge will have another hearing at the end of the 90 days. The maximum time of incarceration for civil contempt is one year. NC Gen. Stat. §5A-21(b2). Because the violator faces incarceration, the court will usually offer to appoint an attorney if the person can’t afford one.
Instead of holding the keys to the jail, the purpose of criminal contempt is punishment. This is what people usually think of when contempt comes to mind. NC statutes list plenty examples of bad behavior, all of which must be willful and usually in the courtroom. These include interrupting court proceedings, disrespecting the judge, disobedience or interference with a court’s order or directive, refusing to answer a question on the witness stand or refusing to be sworn in (of affirmed) to testify.