Maximum Sentence for Criminal Contempt Vacated in Franklin: In re Anna L. J.

Facts: Husband and Wife filed an action against Parents alleging their child was dependent and neglected. As part of an agreed resolution to that matter, the parties entered an agreed reciprocal restraining order prohibiting them from having any contact with each other.

Six months later, Parents petitioned to hold Husband in criminal contempt of court for willfully violating the “no contact” provision of the agreed order.

After a hearing, the trial court found Husband guilty of four counts of criminal contempt, fined him $50, and sentenced him to ten days in jail on each count, with the jail sentences to run consecutively, for an effective sentence of 40 days.

Husband appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment.

Husband argued sentencing him to the maximum jail time for each count was excessive and the trial court should have imposed concurrent rather than consecutive sentences.

An act of contempt is a willful or intentional act that offends the court and its administration of justice. A criminal contempt proceeding is punitive in nature and its primary purpose is to vindicate the court’s authority.

Although criminal contempt is a crime, for constitutional purposes, it is not the same as a violation of the criminal law. The proceeding in contempt is for an offense against the court as an organ of public justice, and not for a violation of the criminal law.

A person charged with criminal contempt is presumed innocent and may not be found to be in criminal contempt absent proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Before a court can hold a person in contempt for violating a court order, the court must find that: the order alleged to have been violated is lawful; the order is clear, specific, and unambiguous; the person disobeyed or resisted the order; and the person’s violation was “willful.” A person found guilty of criminal contempt can be fined $50, imprisoned up to ten days, or both.

Willful conduct consists of acts or failures to act that are intentional or voluntary rather than accidental or inadvertent. Conduct is “willful” if it is the product of free will rather than coercion. Thus, a person acts “willfully” if he or she is a free agent, knows what he or she is doing, and intends to do what he or she is doing.

Where the trial court states in the record the reasons it imposed a particular sentence, the Court of Appeals is able to afford the sentencing decision the presumption of reasonableness. Where the trial court fails to do so, the Court of Appeals may conduct a more detailed review of the record and uphold the decision so long as the statutory purposes and principles, along with any applicable enhancement and mitigating factors, have been properly addressed.

After reviewing the record, the Court reasoned:

In the absence of an explanation from the court of why it imposed the maximum sentence for each count and for the sentences to be served consecutively, in our review we cannot afford the sentencing decision a presumption of reasonableness or conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion….

We have determined, however, under the unique facts and circumstances of this case, that it is appropriate to vacate the sentence imposed on [Husband] and remand the case for resentencing. Upon resentencing, the court shall state its reasons for imposing concurrent or consecutive sentences and why the overall length of sentence (the sum of the days sentenced for each count of contempt) was chosen.

Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was vacated and the matter remanded for reconsideration.

Concurrence: Judge Clement filed a concurring opinion to state:

I write separately to emphasize the point that trial courts should not automatically impose the maximum sentence when consecutive sentencing is available; this is due in part to the recognition that “not every contemptuous act, or combination of contemptuous acts, justifies the imposition of a maximum sentence, particularly when consecutive sentencing is in play.” Imposition of the maximum sentence to be served consecutively is merely an option if the facts of the case justify the absolute maximum sentence. Further, there is a presumption in favor of concurrent sentencing as distinguished from consecutive sentencing.

K.O.’s Comment: For those dealing with criminal contempt sentencing issues, Simpkins v. Simpkins is a must-read.

In re Anna L. J. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, March 20, 2014).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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