In State v. Dennington, the WA Court of Appeals held that a criminal defendant who responded inappropriately to the judge after the judge scolded him for making an inappropriate reference to the prosecutor’s personal appearance was properly found in contempt.
The State charged Dennington with multiple offenses related to vehicle theft. To ensure sufficient time to conduct witness interviews, defense counsel filed a motion to continue Dennington’s trial date, which the court granted over Dennington’s personal objection.
At the close of this discussion, Dennington made a reference to the prosecutor’s personal appearance, stating that “she needs to lose weight somehow.”
The defendant’s comment prompted the following hostile verbal exchange between the judge and defendant, who turned his back and walked away at least two times during their exchange:
The Court: Let’s go. Sir, you need to watch your conduct in my courtroom. Come back here.
Defendant: I don’t respect you. I don’t respect the court.
The Court: I got it—
Defendant: I don’t respect the liars that you entertain in your court.
The Court: But your conduct in my courtroom is important.
Defendant: Do something about it. I don’t care about that.
The Court: All right, I’m going to find you in contempt of court, sir.
Defendant: Thank you.
The Court: I’m going to add 30 days to your sentence, whatever it may be.
Defendant: Add it to my sentence. I’m not guilty.
The Court: You need to do an order on that.
Prosecutor: Thank you, your Honor.
Defense Counsel: Your Honor, I’ll just—
The Court: It wasn’t to his sentence. You may note your objection, but your client’s conduct in this courtroom is unacceptable, so he’s got 30 days in contempt of court.
Dennington later pled guilty to two counts of taking a motor vehicle without permission in the second degree. Dennington appealed from the order holding him in contempt of court. On appeal, he argued that the contempt order must be reversed because (1) his actions did not constitute contempt of court under RCW 7.21.010, and (2) he was never given the statutorily required opportunity to speak in mitigation after the trial court held him in contempt.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals began by describing the statute defining Contempt of Court. Contempt of court is defined as intentional (a) Disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior toward the judge while holding the court, tending to impair its authority, or to interrupt the due course of a trial or other judicial proceedings; (b) Disobedience of any lawful judgment, decree, order, or process of the court; (c) Refusal as a witness to appear, be sworn, or, without lawful authority, to answer a question; or (d) Refusal, without lawful authority, to produce a record, document, or other object.
Also, the court found that the Contempt of Court statute requires that “the person committing the contempt of court shall be given an opportunity to speak in mitigation of the contempt unless compelling circumstances demand otherwise.
“This is so because the opportunity to mitigate does not enable the contemnor to avoid the finding of contempt but, rather, permits a contemnor to apologize for, defend, or explain the misconduct that the court has already determined constitutes contempt in an effort to mitigate the sanctions to be imposed,” said the Court, citing Templeton v. Hurtado.
Here, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the judge properly found the defendant in contempt of court:
“Dennington’s actions—rudely commenting on the prosecutor’s physical appearance and, when admonished to adjust his behavior, turning his back on the judge and explicitly and rudely telling the judge that he did not respect the court or others involved in his case—plainly presented a direct threat to the authority and dignity of the court and to maintaining proper decorum during court proceedings . . . Dennington’s behavior, left unaddressed, could have encouraged others to similarly disrespect the court or similarly disrupt proceedings.”
However, the Court of Appeals also ruled that Mr. Dennington was denied his statutory right to speak in mitigation of his contempt. “Second, the court never asked Mr. Dennington if he had anything he wished to say to mitigate his contempt, said the Court of Appeals. “Following the summary contempt finding, the court was statutorily required to offer Dennington the opportunity to allocute in mitigation of his contempt before imposing sanctions. Here, the court erred by not doing so.”
With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed the finding that Dennington was in contempt, yet reversed the sanction imposed.
My opinion? Granted, it’s difficult for many defendants to be under the authority of a judge’s decision. However, respecting the judge is a necessary formality and like most formalities, it has very real purposes. Whether you actually respect the judge is irrelevant. At the end of the day, the judge is the one calling the shots. Therefore, it is symbolically important for everyone to make a showing of deference at the outset of the proceedings.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an experienced attorney is the first and best step toward gaining justice.