Disorder in the court: Contempt cases come in all shapes and sizes

Disorder in the court: Contempt cases come in all shapes and sizes

URBANA — We've all been there. Words blurted out in an emotional reaction that we instantly wish we could take back.

Unfortunately, if it happens in the presence of a judge trying to do a job, it can mean the instant loss of liberty.

It's called direct criminal contempt of court.

Earlier this month, it earned Willie Craft Jr., 27, of Urbana six months in the county jail when he called Champaign County Judge Richard Klaus a derogatory name — more than once — in a courtroom crowded with unhappy people after Klaus sentenced Craft's father to prison for reckless homicide for killing a woman with his pickup truck.

"That man had an accident. Do you know that?" Craft yelled at the judge after the name-calling.

The most Craft will have to serve is three months because he can earn credit for good behavior on the jail sentence. He's already sent a letter of apology to Klaus and asked him to reconsider the sentence.

Unlike civil contempt, which is designed to gain compliance — like making a news reporter reveal a source or a deadbeat parent pay child support — criminal contempt is punishment after the fact for loose lips or other disrespectful acts.

"It's not a playground, not a basketball court. It's a courtroom, and you're supposed to maintain a certain amount of decorum. It's incredibly important that you maintain control," said Presiding Champaign County Judge Tom Difanis, who's been on the bench almost 20 years.

"What they're trying to do is take over the courtroom to show they're in control. We can't lose that kind of control. If we don't (maintain control), other people might be motivated to start acting out," said Judge Jeff Ford.

While not unheard of, neither are courtroom outbursts an everyday occurrence. They make court security officers, whose job is to keep courtrooms safe and civilized, extremely nervous.

"I'm thinking about protecting the people in the courtroom, doing my best to end it as quickly and as safely as possible for everyone," said Sgt. John Carleton.

A court security officer for 22 years, Carleton has seen his fair share of courtroom no-nos, including one that left him red-faced, literally, for hours.

Early in Carleton's career, a man tried to run from court after punching another person. Pepper spray from a fellow officer that was intended for the would-be escapee also got on Carleton.

"It happens and it's part of the job and part of this place," he said of the brouhahas.

Swift, and sometimes harsh punishment is intended to deter others.

"It's an immediate sanction that has to be imposed. The maximum sentence that can be imposed without a trial is six months. If the court thinks it's more outrageous than that, you go through the trial process," Difanis said.

Direct contempt occurs in front of the judge. Indirect contempt is done outside the presence of the court and must be charged and proven.

Civil contempt can be "purged" by following the order — e.g., turning over documents or paying the child support. Criminal contempt can't be purged but the defendant can ask for a reduced sentence.

Many years ago, the late Judge John Shonkwiler of Piatt County wrote a treatise on the various kinds of contempt that has been adopted by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts and is given to all new judges.

He defined direct criminal contempt as a "verbal or nonverbal act in the presence of the court that embarrasses or obstructs the court in its administration of justice, brings the administration of justice into disrepute, derogates from its authority or dignity, or constitutes a direct defiance of a court order before a judge in open court,"

Whether a judge imposes a few hours or a few months in jail depends on what the person did and the temperament of the judge.

In 2008, Champaign County Judge Heidi Ladd exercised great judicial restraint by not holding a man in contempt for his actions during a sentencing hearing for a convicted murderer.

The victims' son-in-law came out of the audience in a rage and began hitting the defendant. His bereft wife, the daughter of the victims, had just delivered a heart-wrenching statement during which she also yelled at the defendant.

"I think judges sometimes have selective hearing because you understand emotions run high and you have to balance that with maintaining the dignity and order of the courtroom. I never take it personally. I have to consider how it's affecting other spectators and participants," said Ladd.

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