Family law matters can be incredibly stressful and contentious. Sometimes, these emotions may lead spouses or parents to make decisions that are less than ideal. Obviously, the best plan in your family law case is to follow all of the orders handed down by a judge. Even if you fall short of that, though, it is important to understand that there are limits to what the judge can do to you for disobeying an order. One way to help you avoid receiving inappropriate penalties for disobeying a court order is by making sure you have a knowledgeable Maryland family law attorney on your side.
L.M. was one of those parents. She shared a child with C.C. In September 2018, the child complained about injuries inflicted by the father and the father was charged with child abuse. Shortly after that, the parents were in court with the father asking the judge to issue a protective order against the mother. The judge sided with the father, ordering the mother not to “abuse, threaten to abuse and/or harass” the father.
Eventually, the parents were back in court with the father accusing the mother of sending him threatening texts. As it turned out, the mother had sent the father a few inappropriate texts, but they had stopped several weeks before the parents appeared in court. The judge found the mother in “constructive civil contempt” of court.
The mother appealed and she won. The reason she won was that, even if she did the things which the father alleged, she could not be found in constructive civil contempt of court.
The difference between direct contempt and constructive contempt of court in Maryland
For a little bit of background to understand why she won, it helps to understand what types of contempt Maryland law recognizes. Direct contempt is something a person does in front of a judge in court. So, for example, if a judge had ordered two parents not to harm or threaten harm to each other and the father said to the mother in open court, “I don’t care what this judge says… I am going to beat you tonight,” then that could be direct contempt. (Often times, though, direct contempt will involve directing a highly inappropriate comment to the judge him/herself.) Constructive contempt, on the other hand, is any type of contempt that doesn’t fall within the definition of direct contempt.
In Maryland, even if you do not timely comply with a court’s order, you cannot be found in constructive civil contempt if you had already brought yourself into compliance. By the time this court held its hearing, L.M. was already in compliance. The court required the mother not send any threatening communications to the father for at least 30 days. By the time of the hearing, though, the mother’s last threatening text to the father was more than 60 days old.
In Maryland, when a party belatedly complies, that eventual compliance eliminates the opportunity for the court to find the party in civil contempt. When that happens, “a court generally is limited to proceeding against the party for criminal contempt, where punishment for a past violation of a court order is permissible.”
The mother was in compliance by the time of her court date. For that reason, she couldn’t be found in civil contempt, only criminal contempt. Because the judge found the mother in civil, not criminal contempt, the mother was entitled to a reversal.
Obviously, the best path forward in any domestic violence or other family law case is to follow the orders that the judge gives. If, however, you fail to achieve perfect compliance, it is still important to understand that there are limits and boundaries regarding what the judge can do to you. To make sure that your rights and interests are protected, reach out to skilled Maryland family law attorney Anthony A. Fatemi. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.