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Direct Contempt of U.S. Court Must Be in Court’s Presence; Conviction Reversed

Direct Contempt of U.S. Court Must Be in Court's Presence; Conviction Reversed

The Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the direct contempt conviction (18 U.S.C. 401(1)) of the wife of a civil suit plaintiff who had tried (unsuccessfully) to pass influencing papers to jurors dining in a cafeteria ten floors below the courtroom. The district court had held that the dining room was sufficiently within the sphere of the courtroom to satisfy a "direct" contempt charge.

Shirley Rangolan and her husband had successfully pursued civil damages for his beating by other prisoners while confined in the Nassau County Jail. In this follow-up trial, liability for the damages were to be apportioned among various defendants. Jurors were instructed not to talk to the parties, and vice versa. Nonetheless, after deliberations had commenced, a juror complained that Shirley Rangolan approached him in the courthouse cafeteria, placed a stack of papers in front of him, and said, "I think you should read this." The top document was entitled "Violations of the Nassau County Jail in Hempstead." After seeing that title the juror returned the papers, saying, "I don't think I should be reading this."

Upon learning of this, the court issued an order to show cause for contempt. Rangolan requested a jury trial per 18 U.S.C. § 3691, which authorizes jury trials on contemptuous behavior not in the presence of the court. At trial, she argued that her conduct was committed outside the presence of the court and did not amount to an obstruction of justice. The government argued that the misconduct was sufficiently close to the courtroom to alternatively invoke § 401(1). The district court agreed, found her guilty of direct contempt, and sentenced her to three years probation plus a $1,000 fine.

On appeal, the Second Circuit decided the case solely on the grounds that the conduct occurred sufficiently far from the courtroom and thus did not satisfy the "in or near to" element of § 401(1). The court found that Congress had placed stringent limits on courts' contempt powers. When contempt occurs immediately in the presence of the court, the court can quickly and summarily control any misbehavior so as to return order and integrity to the proceedings. Analyzing relevant U.S. Supreme Court and circuit court rulings, the court concluded that "misbehavior ... so near" the presence of the court meant "misbehavior in the vicinity of the court."

Furthermore, the ultimate test was not one of "physical proximity, but of relevancy." In Rangolan's case, the juror was not on official business but was having breakfast in the courthouse cafeteria when the court was not even in session. Additionally, the cafeteria was deemed not a place "set apart" for court business. The appellate court thus ruled that the crucial "in or near the presence of the court" element of § 401(1) was not met, reversed the district court, and remanded with instructions to enter an acquittal. See: United States v. Rangolan, 464 F.3d 321 (2nd Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

United States v. Rangolan