Contempt of Court Defined
Contempt of court is defined as intentional disobedience of a lawful court order. RCW 7.21.010(1)(b). “‘Punishment for contempt of court is within the sound discretion of the judge so ruling.” Schuster v. Schuster, 90 Wn.2d 626, 630, 585 P.2d 130 (1978) [quoting State v. Caffrey, 70 Wn.2d 120, 122-23, 422 P.2d 307 (1966)].
Violation of the Court Order Must Be in Bad Faith
A violation of the parenting plan must be in “bad faith” in order to constitute contempt. Bad faith basically means a knowing, intentional disregard of the court’s order. Mistakes, honest confusion, or an ambiguous order will often indicate that the violation was not intentional. In re Humphries, 79 Wn. App. 596, 599 (Div. 3, 1995) states: “In the context of a dissolution order, there must be evidence the parent’s failure to comply with an order was in bad faith. RCW 26.09.160(2)(b). In determining whether the facts support a finding of contempt, the court must strictly construe the order alleged to have been violated, and the facts must constitute a plain violation of the order. Johnston v. Beneficial Management Corp., 96 Wn.2d 708, 713-14, 638 P.2d 1201 (1982).”
Evidence of Bad Faith Must Be Clear
The court must strictly construe the parenting plan to see whether the alleged conduct constitutes “a plain violation of the order”. Humphreys, supra at 599. The court can find a parent in contempt of court only if, based on all the facts and circumstances, the court finds that the parent violated the parenting plan in bad faith by a preponderance of the evidence. In re Marriage of James, 79 Wn. App. 436, 440-441, 903 P.2d 470 (1995); RCW 26.09.160(2)(b). If the accused parent establishes a “reasonable excuse for failure to comply … by a preponderance of the evidence” there is no bad faith. RCW 26.160(2)(b).
The Contempt Hearing May Include Oral Testimony
A court can conduct a hearing on contempt by affidavit, oral testimony or both. If the trial court feels it cannot adequately decide a material contested issue without oral testimony, it may on its own motion schedule an evidentiary hearing which it may limit to resolving an issue upon which the decision depends. In re Marriage of James, 79 Wn.App. 436, 442, 903 P.2d 470 (1995).
The Court Order Which Was Violated Must Contain a Specific Warning
RCW 26.09.165 requires that any custody or visitation order on which contempt is based must contain a specific warning that “failure to comply with the residential provision of a court-ordered parenting plan is punishable by contempt of court.” The Order which was violated must contain the specific statutory warning required by RCW 26.09.165; otherwise, contempt may not be found by the court.
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