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Overview of Contempt in Maryland: Contempt Blog Series Part 1 of 3

This article includes a brief overview of contempt in Maryland. It is Part 1 of a three-part series. Part 2 addresses the landmark case of Breona C. v. Rodney D., which clarified the law of civil contempt in child custody cases. Part 3 addresses the application of Breona C. and constructive civil contempt in a recent case.


What is contempt?

Put simply, contempt, also referred to as contempt of court, is a violation of a court order or conduct that disrupts the orderly functioning of the court. There are multiple different forms of contempt under Maryland law. Contempt can be either civil or criminal, and each variation can be either constructive or direct. Maryland law recognizes four main forms of contempt: (1) constructive civil contempt, (2) constructive criminal contempt, (3) direct civil contempt, and (4) direct criminal contempt. These different forms of contempt are not always distinct. In some situations, the same occurrence could be categorized as multiple types of contempt or entail features of multiple types.


What is civil contempt?

Civil contempt can take many forms, but most commonly involves a failure to abide by the terms of a court order. Civil contempt is intended to compel present or future compliance with a court order. Civil contempt is not intended to punish past or completed misconduct.


What is criminal contempt?

Criminal contempt involves “behavior directed against the dignity and authority of the court that tends to bring the court into disrepute or disrespect.” Cameron v. State, 102 Md. App. 600, 607 (1994). In contrast to civil contempt, criminal contempt is punitive in nature, meaning that criminal contempt can impose a penalty for past misconduct.


What is direct contempt?

Md. Rule 15-202(b) defines direct contempt as “a contempt committed in the presence of the judge presiding in court or so near to the judge as to interrupt the court’s proceedings.” In other words, a direct contempt occurs inside the courtroom or close enough to the courtroom that the court’s proceedings are disrupted.


What is constructive contempt?

Md. Rule 15-202(a) defines constructive contempt as “any contempt other than a direct contempt.” In other words, constructive contempt occurs outside of the courtroom and does not disrupt the normal operation of the court’s proceedings.


Can I enforce a custody order with contempt?

Generally speaking, yes. If a court has issued an order involving custody of or access with a minor child, and the other parent is actively violating the terms of the court order, you can file a petition for contempt to compel compliance with the terms of the court order.

For example, if a parent unjustifiably refuses to return your child to you for your parenting time ordered by the court, you may be able to compel compliance with the custody order via constructive civil contempt. However, there are some limits to constructive civil contempt.

In 2021, the Appellate Court of Maryland (formerly known as the Court of Special Appeals), issued a landmark opinion clarifying the application of constructive civil contempt in child custody and access matters. See Breona C. v. Rodney D., 253 Md. App. 67 (2021). In the wake of the Breona C. opinion, many family law attorneys remarked that the decision may result in contempt ceasing to be a useful mechanism to enforce child custody orders. Although the Breona C. opinion limits the application of constructive civil contempt, contempt remains a viable means to compel compliance with custody orders in the right circumstances.


What is a contempt hearing for child support in Maryland? 

When the person who owes child support falls behind, the party who receives the support can file a Petition for Contempt or the Child Support Enforcement Agency can file on behalf of the person who receives the payment of child support. A contempt hearing for child support is to determine if the party paying support is behind in payments. If it is determined the party is behind in payments and child support arrearages are owed, a court can order a sum of money to be paid as a purge within a period of time before imposing a potential period of incarceration.


How to file contempt of court in Maryland

To file a Petition for Contempt in Maryland, you must file a Petition and proposed Show Cause Order in the Circuit Court which issued the Order you allege has been violated.


If you believe that you may need to file a petition for contempt to enforce a court order, or if a petition for contempt has been filed against you contact Monica Scherer, Esq. at 410-625-4740 to speak with an experienced family law attorney at Silverman Thompson.


Disclaimer: This blog is informative in nature. The information contained in this article is not to be considered legal advice and there is no attorney-client relationship formed between Silverman Thompson and the reader. The materials in this blog cannot be repurposed without permission of Silverman Thompson.

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