Contempt of Court and Trial by Jury

A person accused of criminal contempt of court has the right to a trial by jury if the potential punishment to be assessed exceeds $500 and more than six months in jail for each act of contempt. In In re Newby, No. 02-12-00145-CV (Tex. App. - Fort Worth June 6, 2012, orig. proceeding), the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth reminds us that imposing consecutive sentences invokes the right to trial by jury if the consecutive sentences exceed six months in jail.

In Newby, a divorced father failed to pay monthly child support over a period of sixteen months. The ex-wife filed a petition to have the father held in criminal contempt of court. She requested the court to hold the father in contempt of court for each month the father had failed to pay. As punishment, she requested that the father be fined $500 and sentenced to jail for six months for each month the father had failed to pay.

The ex-wife requested the trial court to impose consecutive sentences on the father. In other words, for the first violation the father would serve six months, for the second he would serve an additional six months, and so forth.

Because the total sentence requested exceeded six months, the father was entitled to trial by jury. A trial court is supposed to inform a defendant when he has the right to trial by jury. The defendant can then either request trial by jury or waive his right to trial by jury.

The trial court did not inform the father of his right to trial by jury until mid-way through the trial. Informing a person of the right to trial by jury after the trial begins is too late.

The trial court sentenced the father to two years in jail. The father filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus that he be released because the sentence exceeded six months and he had not been afforded the choice whether to have a trial by jury. The Second Court of Appeals agreed with the father and struck the part of the contempt order sentencing the father to jail for criminal contempt of court.