Contempt: Part 2 – Criminal Contempt

This is the second of a two-part blog series on the differences between civil and criminal contempt.  This blog will focus on criminal contempt.  If you wish to first read the first blog on civil contempt, click here.

In an enforcement action, criminal contempt is punitive in nature.  That means a person found in criminal contempt is being punished for willfully having performed a prohibited act—or not performed a required act, set out in a valid order.  While both civil and criminal contempt may involve the contemnor (i.e. the person found in contempt) being jailed, a person found in criminal contempt has no ability to perform some rehabilitative act that might cut short the sentence. 

The burden of proof in a criminal contempt hearing is the highest burden possible in our legal system— “beyond a reasonable doubt.”1  That is a significant contrast to a civil contempt proceeding where the burden of proof is “a preponderance of the evidence” (i.e. what’s alleged to be true is more likely true, than not true).   Drilling down to the elements of criminal contempt, “[a] criminal contempt conviction for disobedience to a court order requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt of: (1) a reasonably specific order; (2) a violation of the order; and (3) the willful intent to violate the order.”2  (emphasis original).

A criminal contempt proceeding could invoke the right to a jury trial if the sentence might involve more than 180 days in jail and/or a serious fine.  Being jailed for more than 180 days is easier to grasp than what might constitute a “serious fine.”  While no bright-line standard exists for what constitutes a serious fine, the Texas Supreme Court held in one case that two fines of $500 each did not invoke the right to a jury trial.3  In another case, the Texas Supreme Court held that fines totaling $104,000 entitled the alleged contemnor to a jury trial.4  The threshold for what constitutes a serious fine likely lies somewhere in-between. 

Author Jim Cramp is a retired active duty colonel and the founder and principal attorney at the Cramp Law Firm, PLLC.  The firm provides a spectrum of family law-related services to clients in the greater San Antonio region, across the United States and throughout the world.  The firms also provides Wills and Estates and Probate services.


1  Ex parte Chambers, 898 S.W.2d 257, 259 (Tex. 1995)

2  Id.

3  Ex parte Werblud, 536 S.W.2d 542, 547 (Tex. 1976)

4  Ex parte Griffin, 682 S.W.2d 261, 262 (Tex. 1984)