Jail for Cursing in Court, But No Time for Tardiness

By William Peacock, Esq. on October 24, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Robert Peoples is going to have to learn some respect. Down in the Fourth Circuit, the legal profession is still held in high regard. There is a certain decorum that is expected of all those who step foot in the hallowed halls of a mid-Atlantic courtroom.

Peoples was pressing multiple claims against prison officials due to his treatment while he was a guest of the state. After he showed up late during jury selection, Judge Cameron McGowan Currie warned him to be on time. He was late on the first day of trial. Judge Currie stated that next time, his claims would be dismissed with prejudice.

Though he was late again, he called the court and was excused. However, he became disruptive and disrespectful and was given one final warning.

During a subsequent trial, even after another reminder, he was late again. Case dismissed.

After the judge left the courtroom, Peoples approached the deputy clerk and stated, "Tell Judge Currie get the f--- off all my cases. I started to tell her something there. I started to tell her ass something today." He continued to rant and was charged with contempt. Judge Currie then recued herself.

However, he still hadn't learned his lesson. He showed up late to the contempt hearing, earning himself a second charge, tried back-to-back with the first. His excuse was car trouble. He was found guilty of both counts. He appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

In order to hold someone in criminal contempt, there must be

  • misbehavior;
  • in or near the presence of the court;
  • which obstructs the administration of justice;
  • and is committed with criminal intent;

Peoples challenged the first and third elements. First, he claimed that while his language might have been offensive to some, it was not directed at the judge and was simply an expression of his displeasure. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, stating that it was uttered in order to get Judge Currie off the case and it threatened judicial authority.

His second argument was that it did not obstruct justice, as it was done while the court was not in session. While that may be true, the time spent investigating the matter and in tending to the disturbance distracted the court personnel from their regular duties. That suffices for obstruction in the Fourth Circuit.

(Sidebar: In the Seventh Circuit, the investigation and costs of a contempt charge are not enough by themselves to prove obstruction. Circuit split. SCOTUS anyone?)

It wasn't all bad news for Peoples however. Contempt charges can be brought on notice or via summary disposition. The former would have required time for the defendant to prepare. He was only given a brief moment to confer with counsel while the court remained in session. The latter is only available in cases of misconduct that occur in the judge's presence, such as profane language. Precedent indicated that summary disposition is inappropriate for tardiness.

The result? Four months for cursing and no time for tardiness.

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