The Impressive Reach of the Contempt Power

Hoeschen4 imageRecently, I came across the following rather alarming headline on the ABA Journal’s website:

4th Circuit Upholds Contempt Conviction for Litigant’s Courtroom F-Bomb

Plaintiff Robert Peoples was supposed to be at his table and ready to present his case to the jury at precisely 9:30am on April 11, 2011.  At 9:23, he called the judge, Cameron Currie, to say that he had taken the wrong exit off the freeway and was going to be late.  A few minutes later, he called again to see he was on foot approaching the courthouse.  At 9:45 he finally arrived.  This was the third time Robert Peoples had been late for his own trial, and Judge Currie had warned him not to be late again.  After hearing arguments from Peoples and the defense, Judge Currie decided to dismiss Peoples’ case and left the room to tell the jury they could go home.  While she was gone, Peoples approached the clerk and said, “Tell judge Curry get the fuck off all my cases.”  The clerk left to get a security officer who then returned to remove Peoples.  Judge Currie charged him with contempt for the outburst and referred the case to another judge for trial.  Peoples was found guilty and sentenced to four months in jail.

Peoples was a former convict who had filed a dozen lawsuits in judge Currie’s court over the previous four years.  In each of his complaints, each handwritten and on unlined paper, Peoples alleged a number of violations of his civil rights while incarcerated at Lieber Correctional Institute in South Carolina, mostly related to excessive force.  These sorts of lawsuits are quite common among current and former inmates, so much so that many prisons have started making sample forms freely available to prisoners.  Like most poor inmates, Peoples represented himself at trial—which presents additional difficulties for the judge and opposing counsel who must contend with the plaintiff’s lack of knowledge about etiquette, rules, and procedures.

For four years, Robert Peoples came regularly to court with his handwritten notes and complaints and whatever knowledge of procedure he could pick up in the prison library.  He did not, for instance, know where to go to get the addresses of those he needed to serve with court papers.  As the trials dragged on and concessions to his inexperience were made, tempers flared on both sides—as illustrated by the following exchange in a pre-trial hearing:

MR. PEOPLES: I know it’s always — you always — why — do you have something against me?  Let me ask you that question.  Do you literally have something against me because it seem liking everything you say is directed towards me in a prejudiced matter.  Do you have something against me as a human being?

THE COURT: I do not.

MR. PEOPLES: You don’t?

THE COURT: No.  I think — I think that you do not follow the rules.  I think that you lie.  I think that you are disrespectful.  I think that you are tedious.  I think all of those things, but I think you’re entitled to a jury trial on your claims and you’re getting a fair trial.

In the end, Robert Peoples was convicted of contempt and sentenced to jail for four months.

It’s easy to understand how the various judges involved grew frustrated with Robert Peoples.  They knew his claims were likely going to fail—as most such claims do, especially when brought without the aid of a lawyer.  The judges apparently thought that every day Peoples spent in court was a waste of both taxpayer dollars and time on the crowded judicial docket.

But this is not the lesson any sensible person would take from a harsh sentence of four months. The lesson here is that if you want to sue, you had better have a lawyer or you might bother a judge until he sends you to jail.  This is a lesson must resonate especially hard with former inmates like Robert Peoples who are suing the prisons for inflicting cruel and unusual punishment upon them.  There may be well be some acts so egregious t a four-month sentence is necessary to “vindicate the authority of the court,” but that did not occur here.

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