In a domestic violence context, a restraining order (RO) is a civil order which stops the defendant from threatening the victim's safety in any way. If the defendant violates the RO’s terms, then they could be guilty of contempt.
But what is contempt, and what happens if you're charged with this offense? While you should always seek legal help in such a scenario, here's a rundown of what you should know.
What Is Contempt in a Domestic Violence Context?
If someone knowingly disobeys a court order, then they may be in contempt of court. In the domestic violence context, contempt means disobeying one of two orders:
- A temporary restraining order (TRO)
- A final restraining order (FRO)
Contempt is a criminal offense, and the consequences can be serious. You could permanently lose some of your rights, depending on the charges against you––seek legal advice urgently if you're facing contempt charges.
When Might Someone Be Charged With Contempt?
Every restraining order is different, so there's no single answer to this. However, someone may be charged with contempt if they knowingly break the terms of the particular order.
It doesn't matter how small the violation––if it contravenes the order, it could be an offense. Here are some common examples of restraining order violations.
- Contacting the Plaintiff: The defendant contacts the plaintiff, even if it's just a single text message, when there's a no-contact order in place.
- Proximity to the Plaintiff: Restraining orders might forbid the defendant from being within a certain distance of the plaintiff. If the defendant is too close, then they're violating the order.
- Entry to Property: If there's an order in place prohibiting the defendant from entering the plaintiff's home, it's a violation to enter the grounds of the property, even if it's to recover personal belongings.
- Aggressive Actions: The defendant acts in a way that could be classed as domestic violence, e.g., assault, lewd behavior, harassment, criminal mischief.
- Failure to Act: A defendant fails to pay a court-ordered sum, e.g., alimony or medical expenses.
Essentially, if the defendant acts in a way that disobeys the order, even if it's an honest mistake, they could face contempt charges.
The defendant may also face additional charges depending on the circumstances. For example, if they attack the plaintiff or use a weapon, more serious charges could apply.
How Do You Prove Contempt in a RO Violation Context?
To prove contempt in a domestic violence context, the prosecutor must show:
- The defendant knew of the restraining order against them
- The defendant deliberately violated the order
So, even if you're charged with contempt, it's sometimes possible to fight the charges if you can prove you made an honest mistake. However, domestic violence cases are highly complex, and you'll need an experienced attorney's advice on how to proceed with your case.
What Are the Penalties for Violating a Restraining Order?
The penalties for a restraining order violation vary, depending on the context.
- If it's a first violation, the defendant could pay fines up to $1,000 and face up to 180 days in jail.
- A second restraining order violation attracts a mandatory jail sentence of 30 days.
Prosecutors charge some RO violations as felony crimes. If you're charged with a felony, you could face fines of up to $10,000 or up to 18 months in jail. Otherwise, you could be charged with a disorderly persons offense, which is less serious. The charges depend on the nature of the violation.
Your criminal defense attorney can advise you what penalties you might face based on the plaintiff's allegations and the strength of the evidence against you.
Will Contempt Go on My Criminal Record?
Yes. Remember, while restraining orders are usually civil matters, violating a TRO or FRO is a criminal offense. So, if you're found guilty of violating a restraining order, this will go on your criminal record. It's sometimes possible to have a contempt charge expunged from your criminal record, but this cannot be guaranteed.
Having a criminal record may damage your relationships and future career opportunities. Call an attorney immediately if you're unsure how to comply with a restraining order––even accidental violations can still have long-term implications.
How Can Someone Defend a Contempt Charge?
Even if you're charged with criminal contempt, there may be defenses open to you.
Remember, the plaintiff must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you knowingly violated a restraining order. This is not always easy to do. For example, if there's insufficient evidence available, the charge may be dropped. Or, if we can prove you didn't know about the restraining order at the time of the alleged violation, the charges may be dismissed.
The Lento Law Firm has experience defending clients against contempt charges in the context of RO violations, so don't hesitate to reach out if you need representation.
How Attorney Joseph D. Lento Can Help With Contempt Charges
If you're found guilty of criminal contempt, it will appear on your criminal record. Any criminal conviction can really impact your long-term prospects, so it's crucial you get legal counsel at the earliest opportunity.
If you need help with a contempt charge in a domestic violence context, call the Lento Law Firm now on 888-535-3686. We're reading and waiting to assist you through this challenging time.