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Florida Marital And Family Law Judge’s Decision To Hold Mother In Direct Criminal Contempt Of Court Reversed

In Fiore v. Atheneos, the Fourth District Court of Appeals in West Palm Beach reversed a divorce judge who presides north of Broward County who held a mother in direct criminal contempt of court for her failure to execute her children’s passport applications. Judge Moses Baker, Jr. ordered the mother to complete the passport applications which the father had previously provided to her to execute and return. When the mother failed to comply, the Florida divorce judge treated her conduct as direct criminal contempt of court. However, on appeal, the Fourth District explains that the trial court was in error.

The court can hold a person in indirect criminal contempt, when the contemptuous conduct occurs outside of the judge’s presence. To hold a person in indirect criminal contempt first, the judge, based on his own motion or the affidavit of a person with knowledge of the contempt, issues and signs an order directed to the defendant stating the essential facts constituting the criminal contempt and directing the defendant to appear before the court. The order shall specify the time and place for the hearing on the charge of contempt and shall allow the defendant reasonable time to prepare for his or her defense
To hold a person in direct criminal contempt, the contemptuous conduct must occur in the presence of the court, in front of the judge. A judge must recite to the defendant the essential, or specific, facts upon which the court is holding the person in contempt. Second, the judge must allow the person an opportunity to explain to the court why he should not be adjudged guilty for his actions.

Here, the mother’s failure to execute and return the passport application did not occur in the presence of the court; therefore, holding her in direct criminal contempt was improper.
The Fourth District Court of Appeals also reversed the trial court’s order holding the mother in direct criminal contempt because the trial judge did not follow the procedures outlined in the rule. The appellate court did however uphold the trial court’s decision to grant the father’s motion to compel the mother to complete the passport applications as well as his motion for sanctions against the mother for her failure to comply with the original order.