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December 29, 2010

"F-Word in Court Equals Six-Month Prison Term"

33495319 The title of this post come from the delicate headline of this entry at the WSJ Law Blog, which effectively reviews a recent little ruling from the DC Circuit.  Here are the basics (with decorum preserved by the WSJ editors):

When does brusque behavior in court cross the line into criminal contempt? It was an issue explored yesterday in this D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which either strikes a note for court decorum or hampers free speech, depending on your perspective.

At issue in the case is none other than the F-bomb.  At a criminal sentencing hearing last year, a defendant (who was not identified in the opinion) evidently was displeased about the sentence he received, exclaiming in court: “F*** y’all.”

The trial judge immediately found the defendant guilty of contempt for “uttering a profanity at me in my presence, in my sight, and in a calculated way.”  He handed down a one-year prison sentence for contempt, on top of the other sentences he had imposed for the defendant’s underlying criminal offenses.

The defendant appealed the contempt sentence, claiming he did not obstruct justice, since he uttered the colorful turn of phrase after the hearing had already concluded. But the D.C. Circuit held that verbal fireworks alone, even absent the “material” disruption of ongoing court proceedings, is enough to qualify for contempt.  “An outburst of foul language directed at the court is intolerable misbehavior,” D.C. Circuit Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson wrote for the majority....

But the defendant won one concession: the D.C. Circuit reduced his contempt sentence to 6 months, on the grounds that a court can not not impose a sentence longer than that without a jury trial.

Because the blogosphere has a decorum standard much different than the courtroom, I am amused and a bit annoyed that the WSJ Law Blog was unwilling to spell out the work fuck in its report here.  As the prior sentence reveals, however, I am not a big believer in word taboos.  Sticks and stones and all that... 

If I did not have a lot of exams to grad and other responsibilities, I would be tempted to use this new DC Circuit ruling as an excuse to start a new (sure to be popular) blog on Seven Dirty Words Sentencing Jurisprudence.  (One of my Ohio State colleagues already has written a great article and a great book on fuck jurisprudence, which now may need to be updated.)  Perhaps the spirits of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin will inspire someone to find out if any other infamous dirty words — which are shit, piss, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits, along with honorable metions ass and ball — have led to prison terms if/when a person has the temerity to utter one of them in a courtroom.

Personally, I am not nearly as troubled by the use of a naughty word in the courtroom as I am by the fact that my federal tax dollars are now going to be spent housing a guy for another six months simply because he said fuck in a courtroom.  But I may be full of shit and commentors should feel free to tell me to piss off in the comments.

December 29, 2010 at 03:35 PM | Permalink


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In the Fourth Circuit, multiple profanities directed at a judge constitute only a single offense. U.S. v. Murphy, 326 F.3d 501 (4th Cir. 2003) (vacating two of the defendant's three contempt convictions that had resulted from the following exchange:

MURPHY: You should have just gave me the other damn seven-the other seven months is what you should have did, stinky mother fucker.

THE COURT: Mr. Benya-Mr. Murphy, you are summarily found in contempt of this court-

MURPHY: Just give me the other seven months.

THE COURT: You're summarily found to be in contempt of this court. I sentence you to six months to be served consecutive to any other sentence imposed.

MURPHY: You should have just gave me the other seven months is what you should have done.

THE COURT: Mr. Murphy, I find you again in contempt of this court and you're now summarily found in contempt for a second time and you'll serve an additional six months consecutive to any sentence-

MURPHY: What about that? What about that? Serve that, mother fucker....

THE COURT: Mr. Stone, just a minute. Mr. Murphy-


THE COURT: You just gave the finger to the court. That will be a third contempt of court and that's six-

MURPHY: Add another one to it.

THE COURT:-six more months at the end of your sentence. Well, that's a quick year and a half.)

Posted by: CM | Dec 29, 2010 3:54:58 PM

"...the fact that my federal tax dollars are now going to be spent housing a guy for another six months..."

What tax bracket do you think you will be in, Doug, when 2029 rolls around and the extra six months actually kicks in?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Dec 29, 2010 4:48:38 PM

Contempt of court (at least the form explored here, failure to comply with subpoena etc may be a different matter) needs to be removed from the trial judge. No one should be in a position of declaring the punishment for their own grievance (even if the range of punishments is somewhat constrained). And even after that the bar needs to be set far higher than it currently stands. I would say that so long as the business of the court can in fact proceed that the judge just needs to suck it up, only at the point where the person is shouting down the judge or similar should it be permissible to lodge a contempt finding. If the person is holding a conversation (i.e. questions and responses, however rude those responses), then sorry, that's just a peril of the job.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Dec 29, 2010 5:25:08 PM

I am hoping the top one, Kent, especially given that I should have finished paying for my kids' colleges by then (unless my youngest goes for a Ph.D.).

Posted by: Doug | Dec 29, 2010 8:28:55 PM

I respectfully disagree. The Courts have an inherent interest in managing their own court rooms. It operates fine as it stands and these cases are extremely rare. Abolishing that would give free reign to every douche bag who wants to be disruptive.

Posted by: Bill B. | Dec 29, 2010 11:11:05 PM

The Justices of the Supreme Court can utter curse words at will in formal written decisions and among themselves. An owner of the law makes use of one, it gets him a year in stir. If we are back in kindergarten, the defendant should have been sent to the principal's office where he could sit in the thinking chair for half an hour, then return to court.


Here is a clue for the judge with the thin skin. When you sentence such a crude person to jail, it costs the tax payer $40,000 a year, and the prisoner gets an upgrade in accommodations. That is not necessarily a punishment, except for the innocent taxpayer.

This rudeness in court justifies the return of much cheaper caning, and on the spot.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 30, 2010 3:52:34 AM

Bill: Did you say, "douche bag?" Principal's office.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 30, 2010 3:54:52 AM

There is a word that is such a taboo, not even the potty mouth Justices of the Supreme Court can utter it. The lawyer chokes, coughs, vomits before this word can come out.

The V word. No lawyer can say it.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 30, 2010 4:24:04 AM

What's remarkable is that more defendants don't lash out after preposterously harsh punishments are handed down from the bench. (googled without success to learn what this 26-year-old did besides parole violations to deserve a 29-year sentence...of course these days it doesn't take much).

Such outbursts might be rarer still if courts were better at disguising an apparent inclination to shill for prosecutors and the government.

This is a story about raw power and its abuse...and the stunted emotional development of some who possess such scary powers and impulses.

Happily, American citizens can sleep better at night knowing they can only be imprisoned up to six months without a trial.

Posted by: John K | Dec 30, 2010 10:11:38 AM

@John K:

He murdered someone while on supervised release for a drug charge.

Posted by: Chuck | Dec 30, 2010 11:50:33 AM

The judge should have simply removed him. No need to add time here.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 30, 2010 3:59:06 PM

Thanks, Chuck. The link to the circuit court's ruling wouldn't open for me yesterday.

Posted by: John K | Dec 31, 2010 8:11:02 AM

I don't dispute that a court has an inherent interest in maintaining order in the courtroom, as a matter of basic fairness, I don't know if 6 months in prison is really appropriate for conduct that would, in literally ANY other setting, be protected by the First Amendment.

Of course, this guy is going away for 26 years anyway, so six months is just a drop in the bucket.

Posted by: RS | Jan 6, 2011 7:57:30 PM

To make a long story short. My wife is Bi-polar and is on disability. She had just gotten out of the hospital to changer her meds. She was aressted for misdemenor battery and was sent home the her court date. She was not allowed to drink alcohol. The police came to our house and ask her to take a breath test which she did not have to do. she tested and they informed the court the judge gave her 90 days in Jail. this is her first time to be in trouble for anything did the Judge overstep his bounds and can't this be appeeled

Posted by: Jerry | Aug 20, 2012 6:15:11 PM

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