California Penal Code 166 – Contempt of Court

Facing charges for being in contempt of court can not be easily ignored. There is a certain level of respect for the authority of legal court proceedings. Blatantly disrespecting the court of justice, the process, or the judge can lead to PC 166 charges. The consequences range from fines to potential jail time and will appear on your criminal record.

Regardless of whether you are convicted of a misdemeanor or felony, having a criminal record at all will negatively impact future employment plans and housing opportunities. These are long-term consequences which is why it’s highly recommended you find a criminal defense attorney who can help.

For a deeper understanding of contempt of court charges, we must take a look at how California defines it.

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Defining Contempt of Court

California details what it means to be in contempt of court under Penal Code 166. It states you can commit this offense if you behave disrespectfully during the court process. More specifically, if your behavior is considered contemptuous, disorderly, disruptive, or insolent while court proceedings are taking place, you could be found in contempt of court.

Several circumstances can lead to contempt of court charges, including refusing a judge’s request, refusal to be sworn in as a witness, or simply being too noisy. You can also face PC 166 for violating a court order, which includes any protective orders, restraining orders, or stay-away orders issued against you. The only type of court order that is excluded from PC 166, contempt of court, is violating a condition of probation.

What constitutes a contempt of court charge? The accused would have to be guilty of:

  • Acting disrespectfully during a court proceeding,
    • For instance, being disruptive, belligerent, or distracting, thus showing an obvious lack of respect for the court of law.
  • Willfully violating a legal court order,
    • Willfully means the accused acted on purpose or intended to violate the court order.
    • This also includes purposely violating the conditions of a lawful injunction,
  • Presenting a false account of legal court proceedings,
  • Making false statements about lawful court proceedings,
  • Refusal to being sworn in as a witness,
  • As a witness in court proceedings, you willfully refuse to answer material questions when no legal exception is present, OR
  • Willfully violating protective orders, such as;
    • Stay-away orders or restraining orders against you due to:
      • Adult-dependent abuse,
      • Domestic violence, or
      • Elderly abuse.

The consequences you face depend on the severity of your actions that warranted the contempt of court offense. Cases in which the defendant exhibited particularly violent behavior will often lead to steeper penalties. For instance, if you violated a protective order by violently attacking someone, you will most likely face maximum penalties.

Closely Related Offenses

Some offenses may sound as though they are examples of being in contempt of court, however, there are specific differences and they are charged under separate statutes.

It’s important to note, the penalties for PC 166 may be determined by the details of the original case or the initial charge(s). That said, facing punishments for more than one offense is entirely possible.

California Penal Code 273.6 – violating a restraining order;

This offense is committed with someone knowingly violates the terms and conditions of a legal protective order, restraining order, or stay-away order.

California Penal Code 422 – criminal threats;

This crime is committed when you threaten another person, intending to make them fear for their physical safety or life, or make them fear for the physical safety and lives of their immediate family members.

California Penal Code 1320 – failure to appear;

Failing to appear in court when you know you were required to do so is punishable under this law.

California Penal Code 1203.3 – violating probation;

Probation violations occur when you intentionally violate a term or condition of your probation. This offense carries separate consequences from PC 166 and is not considered a contempt of court action. Instead, it is punishable by either modifying or revoking your probation.

What The Prosecution Must Do

The prosecution must prove a legal court order was violated by establishing the elements of the crime. Also referred to as the facts of the case, these elements are:

  • The court order was a lawful,
    • Meaning the order was legally issued by a judge.
  • The defendant knew it was a legal court order,
    • They were fully aware of the court order as well as the terms and conditions outlined in it.
    • This means the prosecution must prove the defendant knew about and read the court order.
  • The defendant has the capacity and ability to obey the court order, and
    • There is no legal exception to why the court order cannot be obeyed.
  • The defendant willfully violated the court order.
    • They purposely violated any of the terms or conditions explained in the legal court order.

Who Can Be Charged

There are a variety of situations that can lead to contempt of court charges. It’s important to note, a minor can also be charged with being in contempt of court by violating a lawful court order. If this happens to be the situation you are in, contacting a criminal defense lawyer should be a priority. Here are some examples that illustrate who can be charged with PC 166.

Example 1:

Devon has a restraining order in place against her ex-husband, Tracy. It was issued due to multiple domestic violence charges. The restraining order stipulated he could not come within five-hundred feet of her, her home, or her workplace. Tracy got drunk, drove to Devon’s workplace, and made a scene. He smashed her car window and yelled hateful epithets at her.

Not only is Tracy guilty of being in contempt of court for violating the restraining order, but he would also be financially liable for the damage he caused to Devon’s vehicle.

In cases like this, if Devon’s employment was negatively impacted as a result of Tracy’s behavior, she would also be within her rights to sue for punitive damages, such as any loss of wages.

Example 2:

Sarah, a witness, began acting obnoxious and belligerent when she was being cross-examined in court. Angry that her testimony was being questioned, she began ignoring the material questions and posting questions of her own. The judge gave her several verbal warnings before deeming her in contempt of court.

In this case, Sarah was not a criminal who was under trial. However, she did agree to be a witness and respect the authority of the court of justice as well as the judge, prosecution, and legal defense teams involved. Her disrespectful and combative behavior while on the witness stand do rise to the status of being in contempt.

Example 3:

Valerie was a witness to a violent attack and was scared to get involved at all. Nevertheless, she had been the person who called the cops and got the perpetrator arrested. She agreed to testify in a criminal trial. Unfortunately, she got cold feet when the time came to sit on the witness stand. She refused to be sworn in as a witness during the criminal trial.

Although Valerie got nervous, she was still obligated to testify after having made legal statements and agreeing to appear on the witness stand. Her refusal to being sworn in as a witness during this criminal trial is enough to rise to the level of contempt of court under PC 166.

Example 4:

A judge orders witnesses to corporate fraud, Rhea and Frank, to stay away from each other until the criminal trial is concluded. This court order was issued to prevent any witness tampering and/or conflict of interest, which included talking about the on-going trial with one another. Frank was romantically interested in Rhea and decided to ask her out anyway. She agreed and they went out to lunch together. Unfortunately, they revealed details about the trial and were overheard by several people, including a journalist. Their conversation also involved conjecture about the case, assumptions that were voiced without supportive evidence to back it.

Simple actions like this can result in contempt of court charges under PC 166. Especially when the judge specifically outlined the terms of the court order and they had initially agreed to follow them. Rhea and Frank violated the court orders for failing to stay away from each other and for talking about the trial in a public place where their discussion was easily overheard.

Legal Defense

If you are facing contempt of court charges and want to challenge the charge and assert a legitimate defense, retaining the right criminal defense attorney can help. An expert defense lawyer will know how to fight on your behalf for the best possible outcome.

Some of the most common legal defenses that have been used to fight contempt of court charges are:

False Accusations

Unfortunately, some situations can lead to false allegations. If you are being falsely accused, don’t give up the fight to maintain your innocence. Get the help of a criminal defense attorney as soon as you can. Cases in which false accusations are made include when people are acting out of anger or revenge. False allegations can also surface from simple accidents or misinterpreted situations.


  1. Mara was angry that her ex-boyfriend, Simon, whom she had a restraining order against, had a new girlfriend. Acting out of anger, and wanting to protect the new girl from possibly being a victim of domestic violence, she falsely accused him of violating the restraining order and tried to have him arrested.


  1. Mara was grocery shopping at the local Costco and bumped into her ex-boyfriend, Simon. He had no intention of violating the stay-away order she had against him, so he left his shopping cart there and exited the store. Scared and paranoid that he had followed her there and was stalking her, she reported him for violating the court order.

However, the fact that Simon left his cart and the store suggests that he did not want to escalate the situation nor violate the terms of the court order.

Lack of Willfulness

To be found guilty of being in contempt of court, the defendant would have to willfully disobey a lawful court order or purposely engage in disrespectful behavior during court proceedings. If you did not act on purpose, you should not be guilty of being in contempt.


Micheal and Dean were ordered by a judge to stay away from each other during a criminal court case. They promised to obey those terms until the conclusion of the trial. The men did not know they were part of the same golf club and crossed paths on the golf course. Neither party had intended nor purposely wanted to violate the judge’s orders. An unexpected meeting does not constitute contempt. They would not be guilty of PC 166 because they did not willfully disobey the court order.

Lack of Disorderly Conduct

To be guilty of contempt of court, you would have had to purposely exhibit disorderly or disruptive behavior. Sadly, there are cases in which a misunderstanding can lead to wrongful accusations.


Jodie, a teenager, was before the judge attempting to defend himself against vandalism charges. He was so nervous that he could not stop hiccuping in court. He found it funny and could not stifle his laughs between hiccups. The judge thought the teenager was joking and disrespecting the court process, so he charged Jodie with being in contempt of court.

Fortunately, Jodie’s defense attorney was able to challenge the PC 166 offense, stating a lack of disorderly conduct. A minor would have just as much difficulty dealing with hiccups as an adult would. Also, the fact that Jodie was attempting to stifle his laughs meant he did not intend nor did he want to make a bad impression or disrespect the court hearing.

Penalties for PC 166 – Contempt of Court

If found guilty of being in contempt of court, you will face misdemeanor penalties;

A potential county jail sentence of up to six months, and/or

Paying up to one thousand dollars in fines.

Enhanced Penalties

The defendant could face harsher misdemeanor consequences depending on the severity of the contempt order. For instance, harsher punishments are applied if a contempt of court charge was due to:

Violating the terms of a domestic violence protective order,

They violated a stay-away order and have a prior conviction for stalking, or

They possessed or acquired a firearm in clear violation of a court order.

Also, this does not bar the defendant from facing additional suits if a third party was harmed as a result of the violation. For instance, if contempt of court was filed because the defendant committed a violent act or attempted to attack another person. In addition to facing assault or battery charges, the alleged victim is within their rights to bring suit against the defendant. This means increased fines and potentially longer incarceration time.

Penalties for Closely Related Offenses

It is possible to be charged with contempt of court PC 166 and any of the following offenses. Notice, the consequences may differ but you could still end up facing both sets of penalties.

Penal Code 273.6 – violating a restraining order;


A possible one-year county jail sentence, and/or

Fines of up to one thousand dollars.


As long as three years of incarceration in state prison, and/or

As much as ten thousand dollars in fines.

Penal Code 422 – criminal threats;


As long as one year in county jail, and/or

Fines of up to one thousand dollars.


A potential three-year state prison sentence, and/or

As much as ten thousand dollars in fines.

Penal Code 1320 – failure to appear;

Misdemeanor (if you were facing a misdemeanor offense and failed to appear);

A potential six-month county jail sentence, and/or

As much as one thousand dollars in fines.

Felony (if you failed to appear for a felony charge);

A possible county jail sentence of up to one year,

As much as five thousand dollars in fines, or

16 months, 2 or 3-year sentence in state prison.

Penal Code 1203.3 – violating probation;

The judge has the discretion to determine what consequences are fit for violating the terms or conditions of your probation. Punishments may include:

  • Revoking probation and reinstating original sentencing,
  • Probation revoked and maximum sentence applied,
  • Probation could be extended,
  • Counseling could be ordered,
  • Additional probation terms could be applied to current terms,
  • Community service, and/or
  • Enrollment in substance abuse treatment programs.

Facing stacked penalties, such as contempt charges and associated offenses, means steeper punishments are more than likely. An expert criminal defense lawyer can help you attain more desirable results, such as possibly getting the charges reduced or dismissed.

We Can Help

Are you or someone you care about facing charges for PC 166, being in contempt of court, or for any of the closely related offenses? Getting excellent legal counsel is one of the first steps in taking this charge seriously and in maintaining control of your future.

If you are located in Los Angeles, Orange County, or the greater San Diego area contact the Law Offices of Anna R. Yum. Attorney Yum is an award-winning criminal defense attorney and you can expect an aggressive fight for your rights.

We are here to answer your questions and concerns. We welcome your inquiries. Call us at 619-233-4433 or you can use our online contact form.