Violating a Court Order in California - Penal Code 166 PC
The state of California takes court orders very seriously, partly because many court orders are protective or restraining orders associated with domestic violence.
Therefore, it's a criminal offense in to disobey a court order. This crime is embodied in Penal Code 166 PC, California's "contempt of court" law. Depending on the facts of your case, being convicted for violating a court order can result in up to one year in jail.
Numerous acts are considered “contempt of court,” including loud and excessive noise during a court hearing, refusal to be sworn in as a witness, and willfully disobeying a court order.
Still, the most common form of a Penal Code 166 PC violation is related to deliberate breaches of a court order, such as domestic violence issues related to restraining orders, protective orders, and stay-away orders.
Penal Code 166 says: “Someone is guilty of contempt of court if they have disorderly or contemptuous behavior during a court hearing to interrupt its proceedings or to impair the respect due to its authority; a breach of the peace, noise, or other disturbance to interrupt a court proceeding; willful disobedience of a lawfully issued court order: unlawful refusal of a someone to be sworn as a witness or, when so sworn, the like refusal to answer a material question.”
PC 166 is related to Penal Code 273.6 PC, which prohibits violating a restraining order. It's also related to Penal Code 1320 PC failure to appear.
To prove someone violated a court order under PC 166, several elements of the crime must be proven, such as the court issuing a lawful written order, the defendant knew about the order and could follow it but intentionally violated it. Our California criminal defense attorneys will review this further below.
Penal Code 166 PC Explained
Penal Code 166 PC addresses a broader range of offenses in the "contempt of court category." These include behaviors such as being noisy or disruptive in a courtroom, refusing to be sworn in as a witness, disobeying the instructions of a judge, etc.
However, the most common type of criminal contempt, and in many cases, the most serious offense, is willfully violating a court order. Violating a court order is defined as willfully disobeying a lawful order of a court. This would include such things as:
- Failing to pay child support or spousal support as ordered by a family law court under Penal Code 166.5 PC,
- Failing to appear for jury duty after being summoned,
- Failing to obey a subpoena, and
- Disobeying a restraining order or protective order.
Of these, perhaps the most common and concerning violation is the failure to obey a restraining/protective order or stay-away order, as these orders are imposed for the safety of alleged victims of stalking, domestic violence, elder abuse, etc.
It is also of interest to note that these court orders are civil actions, but violating them constitutes a criminal offense. For prosecutors to convict you of violating a court order, they must demonstrate the following facts:
- The judge issued an official court order;
- You had been made aware of the court order;
- You were able to comply with the court order; and
- You willfully disobeyed it.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Jodi obtains a protective order against her boyfriend, Jack. A few months later, Jodi texts Jack and says she wants to reconcile, mentioning a place where they could meet. Jack agrees. Jack is now guilty of violating a court order because even though Jodi wanted to reconcile and initiated contact, the protective order is still in effect.
EXAMPLE 2: A judge issues a restraining order against Fred, forbidding him from contact with his estranged wife, Eunice. They are not in communication with each other, but the two inadvertently run into each other at a bar. Fred quickly leaves without making conversation. Fred would not be guilty of violating the restraining order because the contact was accidental, not willful.
EXAMPLE 3: John is accused of elder abuse of his grandfather in a nursing home, and the judge issues a protective order against him. John feels great remorse and goes to see his grandfather to apologize. Even if John's intentions were good, he still willfully violated a court order and is therefore guilty under PC 166.
What Are the Penalties for Violating a Court Order?
Violations of PC 166 are categorically misdemeanor offenses. Standard contempt of court violations results in up to 6 months in jail and up to $1000 in fines.
However, in domestic violence or elder abuse cases where you violate a protective or restraining order the jail time is increased to one year in jail, and in certain instances, the fine may be increased up to $5000.
In cases of domestic violence or elder abuse, repeated court order violations become "wobbler" offenses, which means they may be prosecuted as misdemeanors or felony offenses.
The same is true if you violate the court order while possessing a firearm. If prosecutors charge you with felony contempt, a conviction could get you up to 3 years in state prison.
There are harsher penalties if you violate a court order after being convicted of Penal Code 646.9 PC stalking and Penal Code 136.1 dissuading a witness.
What Are the Best Defenses for This Crime?
There are several possible defenses to fighting these charges, which your attorney could explore on your behalf. These are discussed below.
Perhaps we could make an argument that it was not a willful violation. The accidental run-in in Example 2 above is a good example. You are only guilty of violating the court order if your actions were deliberate.
Random encounters do not qualify as violations. Perhaps you didn't appear in court because you made an honest mistake on the court hearing date.
Perhaps you were not aware of the court order. For example, if an emergency protective order was issued against you, but the process server couldn't find you to give it to you, you might have made contact with the other party before realizing you had been ordered not to.
Maybe we can argue that you were falsely accused. It's not uncommon for an alleged victim to falsely claim that you violated a protective order in domestic violence cases. Perhaps the protected party in a domestic violence protective order is seeking revenge and is falsely accusing you.
You could face harsh legal consequences if you are accused of Penal Code 166 contempt of court charges. Contact us to review the details and legal options for the best possible outcome. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles and can be reached for a case evaluation by phone or by filling out the contact form.