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.

FACTS

 
On April 6, 2011, Shaun Warrick appeared in the Philadelphia Municipal Court for his preliminary hearing on two homicide charges. The victim’s relatives were seated in the courtroom gallery. Before testimony began, Warrick advised the court his mother had retained private counsel for him and requested a continuance. At the court’s request, his mother, escorted by court officer Richard Brandt, came forward to testify. At that point, the victim’s relatives verbally and physically assailed Ms. Warrick, and a general melee erupted in the courtroom, requiring deputy sheriffs and police reinforcements from outside the courtroom to restore order. The courtroom was locked down for three hours.

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.

ISSUES

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.

HOLDING

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.

REASONING
 

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.

Contempt, therefore, is subject to summary proceedings not only where it takes place “directly under the eye” of the court — in the sense that the court is looking directly at it — but also anywhere “within the view of the court.”

 

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.

http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Supreme/out/J-67A-2014mo%20-%201024137795571941.pdf?cb=1

LEGAL DISCLAIMER – The information contained in this article is for general guidance on the subject matter only. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on the specific facts involved. Given the changing nature of laws, rules and regulations, and the inherent hazards of electronic communication, there may be delays, omissions or inaccuracies in information in this article. Accordingly, the information in this article is provided with the understanding that the authors and publishers are not herein engaged in rendering legal or other professional advice and services. As such, it should NOT be used as a substitute for consultation with a McMahon & Winters Law Firm attorney. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should always consult with a McMahon & Winters Law Firm attorney.

The materials on this website are for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel. You should not rely on any material on this website and should instead seek the advice of competent legal counsel. This information is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. Receipt of e-mail by McMahon Winters Strasko, LLC from you through this website shall not constitute acceptance of an engagement to provide legal services without an executed written agreement or engagement letter. Without an executed written agreement or engagement letter, McMahon Winters Strasko, LLC shall not treat as confidential any information provided by e-mail, delivered through this website.

Address:

8 North Queen Street, 8th Floor
Lancaster, PA 17603
8:00 am - 5:00pm Mon - Fri

Copyright ©2019 McMahon Winters Strasko, LLC

SiteLock