A Party is Entitled to a Jury Trial if the Penalty for Contempt Exceeds Six Months

The defendant was not advised of his right to a jury trial. He thus did not waive that right. He was then convicted of 42 counts of contempt due to failure to make spousal support payments per a marital dissolution order. He was sentenced to 210 days in jail as a result. This petition for writ of habeas corpus followed, wherein he alleges he was denied his constitutional right to a jury trial.

The main issue is whether petitioner was entitled to be advised of his right to a jury trial. There is a federal constitutional right to a jury trial in a contempt case that involves serious punishment. Serious punishment is any imprisonment that exceeds six months. Moreover, contempt proceedings are quasi-criminal in nature, so the waiver of right to a jury trial must be express. In Codispoti v. Pennsylvania, the Supreme court found that the actual penalty imposed is determinative of whether criminal contempt is a petty or serious offense, and that a petitioner is entitled to a jury trial if the penalty exceeds six months. Thus the court here rejected petitioner’s argument that he was entitled to a jury trial simply because he was faced with a possibility of a sentence exceeding six months.

The sentences for the 42 separate “contemptuous acts”  arose from the same order, and the sentence in the aggregate exceeded 180 days. Thus the sentence was “serious” as it exceeded six months incarceration. There was no waiver, let alone an express waiver. Thus, petitioner’s sentence was invalid. The court of appeal however noted that the trial court record contained no irregularity of the nonjury proceedings, such that the sentence, not the judgment was invalid. However, the California Constitution does not carry a right to a jury trial in civil contempt proceedings. The right to a jury trial comes from the United States Constitution, and federal cases allow reduction of the sentence to six months of less under similar circumstances to this one. The court of appeal held that petitioner’s sentence was to be reversed – but not the judgment. The fact that the trial court did improperly sentence him does not mean that he should escape any sentence altogether. On remand the trial court was to re-sentence defendant to a term that would not exceed 180 days in the aggregate.

In re Marriage of Kreitman (1995) 40 Cal.App.4th 750