CONTEMPT OF COURT “IN THE PRESENCE OF THE COURT” MEANS A SUMMARY HEARING WITHOUT THE RIGHT TO COUNSEL OR TO CALL WITNESSES MAY BE IN YOUR FUTURE
THE PA SUPREME COURT HAS HELD IN THE CASE OF COMMONWEALTH v. MOODY, NO. 47 EAP 2013 (OCTOBER 27, 2015) THAT WILLFUL MISCONDUCT IN THE PRESENCE OF THE COURT THAT OBSTRUCTS THE FAIR AND ORDERLY PROCESS OF THE COURT AMOUNTS TO DIRECT CRIMINAL CONTEMPT, AN OFFENSE THAT CAN BE SUMMARILY ADDRESSED BY THE OFFENDED COURT WITHOUT AFFORDING THE ACCUSED AN OPPORTUNITY TO CALL WITNESSES OR HAVE COUNSEL PRESENT. COUNSEL MUST ONLY BE SECURED BEFORE A SENTENCE OF IMPRISONMENT IS IMPOSED.
As a result of their involvement in the melee, Appellees were brought before the court for summary proceedings on the charge of direct criminal contempt of court. Their request for counsel and to call witnesses was denied by the court although the court agreed to appoint counsel before sentencing. Appellees were found in contempt and sentenced to 5-10 days imprisonment.
Appellees appealed to the Superior Court which found the trial court abused its discretion in holding a contempt hearing that violated Appelleess’ due process rights. The Commonwealth sought allowance of appeal to the PA Supreme Court to determine (1) whether the Superior Court was wrong when it determined that Appellees’ violent in-court conduct was not summary direct criminal contempt because the trial court supposedly did not personally observe the conduct and (2) whether Appellees were entitled to counsel and to call witnesses for a summary criminal contempt of court charge.
The PA Supreme Court held that summary contempt is warranted when the contemptuous conduct takes place “in the presence of the court” and that the court so violated is under no obligation to prove it actually witnessed the disturbance. The Superior Court was therefore wrong to confuse the concepts of something occurring “in the presence of the court,” with that of it being “personally observed” by the court. As to Appellees’ right to counsel and to call witnesses for a summary criminal contempt of court charge, the Court held that Appellees were not entitled to call or cross-examine witnesses during such proceedings and were only entitled to counsel prior to actual imprisonment for contempt.
The Court recognized that courts have inherent power and statutory authority to impose summary punishment for direct criminal contempt for willful misconduct that occurs in the presence of the court and obstructs its fair and orderly process. Further, the inherent power of a court to impose summary punishment for contemptuous misbehavior in its presence has long been recognized in both statute and case law, and does not offend the PA Supreme Court’s notions of due process. The PA Supreme Court noted that it and the United States Supreme Court, with full regard to due process, have consistently held summary contempt is warranted when the contemptuous conduct takes place in the presence of the court. Thus, the court so violated is under no obligation to prove it actually witnessed the disturbance.
As to the conduct of the proceeding, the Court concluded without hesitation that precedent clearly and sufficiently demonstrated that a direct criminal contempt defendant is not entitled to call or cross-examine witnesses during such proceedings. The Court reasoned that where an individual engages in willfully disobedient conduct in open court — requiring the court to act immediately to restore order and vindicate its authority, the court may do so. And, assistance of counsel need only be secured before actual imprisonment for contempt.
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