The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that persons found in criminal contempt under the general contempt statute have not been convicted of a criminal offense and may not obtain post-conviction relief from such criminal contempt findings.
Persons convicted of offenses defined as crimes by state statutes may seek relief in the courts from constitutional errors in their convictions by filing a petition under a state law called the Post-Conviction Procedure Act. Generally, those seeking post-conviction relief have been convicted of a crime, are in custody under a sentence of a state court, and have the automatic right to file one petition for post-conviction relief.
The case concerns Tracy Rose Baker, a Sumner County woman who, in 2010, admitted willfully violating court orders arising from her divorce case on 18 occasions. As punishment for these instances of criminal contempt, she agreed to maximum sentences of 10 days on each of the 18 counts. Initially, she was placed on probation for six months. She was later found to have violated the terms of the probation and ordered to serve the entire 180-day sentence in the Sumner County Jail. Ms. Baker appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reduced the total sentence to 30 days.
Ms. Baker did not appeal from the Court of Appeals’ decision. Instead, she returned to the trial court and filed a petition for post-conviction relief to overturn the 2010 order in which she agreed to the 18 contempt findings. The trial court denied Ms. Baker’s petition. Ms. Baker appealed, and the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the trial court, explaining that post-conviction relief is not available to persons found to be in criminal contempt under the general contempt statute.
The Supreme Court in its Opinion today upheld the Court of Criminal Appeals decision, noting the distinction between a conviction of a criminal offense and a finding of criminal contempt under the general contempt statute. While both may result in a punishment of jail time, Tennessee law does not define contempt as a criminal offense, or equate a finding of criminal contempt with a conviction of a criminal offense.
In the Opinion, Justice Cornelia A. Clark writes contempt laws “are not intended to punish conduct proscribed as harmful by the general criminal laws. Rather, they are designed to serve the limited purpose of vindicating the authority of the court” as it relates to judicial proceedings. Thus, Ms. Baker was not entitled to seek post-conviction relief from the criminal contempt findings.