A contempt of court case
In 2011, Bibian Nwanguma, hereafter called BN, was charged with trespass in Durham County District Court. She was found guilty, and appealed the decision to superior court.
On Aug. 21, 2012, her case was scheduled in superior court. She appeared in the morning with her attorney. After the morning session, Judge Abraham Jones directed her to appear back in court at 2:30 PM.
That afternoon BN’s attorney tried to show her the way to the courthouse by following her in a car. However, she lost sight of his car. She finally found the courthouse, but arrived after 2:30 PM. Court was in session and the door to the courtroom was closed. She sought guidance from the clerk’s office and was told to come back the next day.
The next day, her case was called – and she was present. The judge asked her to explain why she did not appear in court the day before. Her attorney explained the above facts, and also said that BN was taking several medications and expressed doubt that she really understood the proceedings against her.
The judge then said that he could not allow people to be late for court, that if he allowed such things, that court would break down. He then held BN in contempt of court and sent her to jail for 30 days and to receive a mental competency evaluation. The evaluation found her to be competent. She spent 30 days in jail. The decision was appealed to the Court of Appeals.
If contempt of court takes place in the presence of the judge, a defendant can be sentenced to jail immediately with very little in procedural requirements. Thus, if a defendant stands up in court and curses at the judge, the defendant can be sent to jail forthwith – swoosh! – off to jail he goes, right on the spot.
However, if the contempt of court takes place outside of the presence of the judge, there are several requirements that must be followed. First, the judge should set the matter for hearing and give the defendant a chance to mount a defense. Second, the judge must prepare an order showing the reasons he found the person in contempt.
In this case, Judge Jones evidently believed this was contempt that was committed in the courtroom. BN was standing before him, and he had given his instructions to her in the courtroom. However, he was mistaken, The contempt was for NOT SHOWING UP IN COURT – therefore, the contempt did not take place in his presence.
BN appealed to the NC Court of Appeals. There, the state argued that BN had an opportunity to be heard, therefore sending her to jail was proper.
The court of appeals disagreed. BN was not given a chance to prepare for her defense, and the judge did not write out an order explaining why he jailed her. The contempt order of Judge Jones was nullified.
This is an important case. Back in the old days judges often found people in contempt and threw them in jail instantly – blam! – just like that: Off they went to jail.
For instance, in the old days, if jurors were summoned to court and did not appear, sometimes the judge would ask the clerk, “Where is juror _____________ ? (naming the juror). Then he would ask, “Did he get notice?” When the clerk said “yes,” the judge would turn toward the bailiff and say, “Go out and find juror ___________ and put him in jail.”
Word about this would spread, and the result was that jurors would make absolutely sure they appeared at the right place at the right time. Yet, sometimes, it was instant injustice.
When people fail to show up in court, judges should be stern.
However, BN was confused, and was having considerable difficulty in dealing with her case. She clearly made some bad decisions, but she wasn’t a scofflaw. She was late, but did go to the courthouse, and she asked for advice.
Judges have enormous power. They should use this power sparingly. Here, it would have been better to temper the wind to the shorn lamb.
In due time a jury found her not guilty in her trespassing case.