A young Florida woman facing 30 days in jail on felony contempt of court charges salvaged her reputation when she tearfully apologized to a Maimi judge. The judge had ordered the woman to serve 30 days after she cursed and made an obscene gesture in his courtroom. Upon hearing her apology, the judge dropped the felony contempt of court charge and vacated her 30-day sentence.
The case highlights a fundamental concept practiced in most judicial systems. When a defendant is clearly guilty, courts and correctional systems tend to look for indications that the person has taken responsibility for their actions. When you’re wrong, sooner or later, it may be best to admit your error.
Sometimes, contrition can be a part of seeking parole from a long prison sentence. Other times – as in the case of the Florida first-offender – a quick admission of guilt and an apology can make the difference between a felony conviction and charges being dropped.
Appearing in a courtroom lined with deputies, her criminal defense lawyer and family members at her side, the woman let her defense attorney first address the court. He asked for an opportunity for her to apologize for her “ill advised, inconsiderate behavior.”
How to Avoid Contempt of Court: Breathe
Watching a video of her appearance, we can learn some tips about how to maintain self-control in a stressful situation. When the judge first spoke to her, she took a deep breath, perhaps preparing to make the statement her attorney likely advised her to make. But it wasn’t her turn yet.
As the judge spoke, she exhaled – perhaps intuitively – in a manner frequently called “pursed lip breathing.” The method, experts say, increases pressure in the lungs, forcing more oxygen from the breath into the blood stream. Oxygen in the blood feeds the brain, supporting mental processes essential for social functioning. It’s an incredibly powerful way to divert stress that might otherwise lead to an inappropriate comment or gesture.
The lesson here is to control your demeanor by controlling your breath. When we face stress, our bodies can unconsciously increase the force of our breath. One way people react to that situation is to sigh. That might not be the best signal when one is already being held in contempt of court in Oklahoma, in Florida or anywhere. A sudden exhale might be seen as subconscious indication of contempt. Pursed lip breathing avoids more obvious expressions and can make a very different impression than a sigh.
In response the judge’s question, when it was her turn to speak she said “Yes, I understand completely and I apologize.”
As the judge continued to question her, she again took a deep, controlled breath. Struggling to maintain a poise she’d apparently learned somewhere in life, she began to speak, but covered her mouth with her hands – which were in handcuffs.
The judge made a comment, apparently instructing her to speak clearly.
“My behavior was very irrational, and I apologize not only to the court and to you, but to my family,” she said.
At that point, she began to cry. The judge again addressed her. “I’m not a monster,” he said.
She began to laugh slightly. That’s what got her in trouble with that same judge earlier. The judge acknowledged that he’d made her laugh and said if she cried “that’s alright.”
She was fortunate to have a tough but understanding judge on the bench. He recognized in comments from the bench that we live in a society that often condones or encourages profanity. But that doesn’t make it acceptable, the judge lectured.
Right to Remain Silent Isn’t A Right to Lie
The Florida defendant was also fortunate to have a criminal defense attorney who knew when to approach the court with an apology. The judge ordered her to participate in a drug treatment program. For her part, the woman admitted she’d take two Xanax sometime before the earlier court appearance where she’d been found in criminal contempt. During her first hearing, she’d denied taken the pills.
That’s one more lesson to learn from this case. She was very lucky on that. A person has a right not to incriminate themselves, but that doesn’t mean people have a right to lie in court. As attorneys, we can’t suborn perjury – knowingly encourage defendants or witnesses to lie. A lie in court can further complicate a criminal matter if the person is found guilty of perjury. The judge in this case recognized the way Xanax can affect the mind, and afforded the woman a degree of mercy consistent with her contrite apology.
Not every legal strategy hinges on admission of guilt. A defendant may have genuine doubts about whether they are guilty. Sometimes the law can be fuzzy. Defense attorneys work to get the best possible outcome in each a case in view of the particular facts of that case. The state still has to prove a case. But when a defendant blatantly disrespects the court – on camera, no less — an admission and apology is probably the surest way to undo the wrong while there is still time to avoid a felony contempt of court charge.
Free Consultation With a Tulsa Defense Attorney
If you’re facing criminal contempt of court charges, don’t go it alone if you don’t have to. If you would like a free consultation with a Tulsa Oklahoma criminal defense attorney, call the Wirth Law Office at (918) 879-1681 (or toll free at (888) Wirth-Law) or submit the question form at the top right of this page