What’s the cost of sending an unwanted email?  For one NC defendant, it was $2,500.

When parties are going through a divorce, people’s emotions can, at times, get the better of them and prompt them to do and say things they shouldn’t have.  As a result, it is sometimes necessary to for a party to obtain a restraining order or no-contact order to keep the other party at bay.  When the person ordered to cease contact or communications does not comply with the court order, that person can be held in contempt of court.

Contempt powers of a the court come in two forms that allow a court to either (1) force a person to comply with a court order (“civil contempt”) or (2) to punish the person for his failure to comply with a court order (“criminal contempt”).  Usually, if a party is found in contempt in a family law case, it is most often civil contempt as it does not implicate the constitutional protections that must be afforded a defendant in a criminal proceeding.  But, either type of contempt allows the court to put the offender in jail.  So, failing to comply with a child support order can land you in jail for contempt.  With criminal contempt, the offender is going to sit in jail for a set period of time as his punishment.  With civil contempt, however, the court must provide the offender with the means to get out of jail—that is, to “purge” himself of the contempt—usually by doing what the court ordered him to do in the first place.

A recent decision from the NC Court of Appeals appears to have created a new penalty that a court may impose on a person found to be in contempt of a court order.

In Tyll v. Berry, a family dispute in Orange County turned hostile when a daughter’s live-in boyfriend was told he was no longer welcome at family gatherings and the boyfriend to take the internet to wage “total war.”  The boyfriend sent numerous emails to family members and their employers in which he made references to war, death, and defeating his opponents.  Needless to say, the family members were bothered by these messages, and, two of them, a husband and wife, obtained a no-contact order in which the boyfriend was ordered not to “interfere with” the couple or their family members.  A few months later, the boyfriend emailed one of the family members, and as a result of that email, he was found to be in contempt for violating the court’s no-contact order.

You would think the threat of imprisonment would be enough to coerce most people to comply with a court order.  But, sometimes it is not.  And, a NC judge that might be hesitant to throw someone in jail didn’t have the option to impose a fine on a defendant to coerce his or her compliance, until now.  The court in Tyll did just that by requiring that the boyfriend, in order to be released from jail, to pay $2,500 to the couple who had obtained the no-contact order for his offensive email.  It also ordered that the boyfriend would have to pay an additional $2,500 for each future violation of the no-contact order.

The boyfriend appealed arguing that the trial court did not have the power to order him to pay a fine.  In a surprising decision, the Court of Appeals disagreed concluded that the trial court had acted within its discretion.  The decision may be appealed to the NC Supreme Court.  But, for now, domestic litigants and their attorneys have a new tool with which to seek compliance with a court’s order.

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