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In re Oliphant

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

January 15, 2020



          Graham C. Mullen, United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Appellant Precious Laterica Oliphant's Appeal of Magistrate Judge Decision (“Appeal”) (Doc. No. 5). It appears to the Court that the Appeal has been fully briefed and is ripe for judgment.

         I. FACTS

         On November 29, 2018, Appellant was seated in a courtroom during a sentencing hearing for Dion Lamar Williams. (Doc. No. 1, at 1). Mr. Williams was Appellant's boyfriend (Doc. No. 11, at 9), and Appellant attended the hearing on his behalf (Doc. No. 7, at 2). After sentencing was complete, Appellant, along with other spectators, began to leave the courtroom. (Doc. No. 1, at 1). However, as she reached the exit, Appellant shouted “‘piece of sh-t!' in a loud angry tone.'” (Doc. No. 1, at 1). In response, the magistrate judge asked a marshal to bring Appellant back into the courtroom, and the magistrate judge held her in summary criminal contempt. (Doc. No. 7, at 2). The magistrate judge then asked her if she wanted “to say anything” before he “impose[d] a sentence, ” to which Appellant responded “no.” (Doc. No. 1, at 2-3).


         Generally, courts review findings of fact underlying a contempt conviction for clear error, while the ultimate determination of guilt and other questions of law are reviewed de novo. United States v. Goode, 545 Fed.Appx. 197, 198 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing United States v. Peoples, 698 F.3d 185, 189 (4th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 915, 184 L.Ed.2d 703 (2013)). However, where an appellant fails to raise an objection to her summary contempt conviction, courts review for plain error.[1] Id. To establish plain error, an appellant must show: “(1) there was error; (2) the error was plain; and (3) the error affected [her] substantial rights.” Id. (citing United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 732 (1993)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Appellant's Appeal is premised on two main arguments. First, Appellant's conduct cannot support a criminal contempt conviction as a matter of law, and, even if it could, there is insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction. (Doc. No. 11, at 19). Second, the magistrate judge erred when he employed summary contempt procedures without considering whether a non-summary proceeding under Rule 42(a) would have sufficed. (Doc. No. 11, at 18).

         A. Appellant's Conduct

         According to Appellant, her “use of a single expletive, not directed at the judge or any other court officer does not constitute criminal contempt as a matter of law.” (Doc. No. 11, at 15). Appellant relies on a case called Eaton v. City of Tulsa, in which the Supreme Court held that the “single isolated usage of street vernacular, not directed at the judge or any officer of the court, cannot constitutionally support a conviction of criminal contempt.” 415 U.S. 697, 698 (1974). However, Appellant's reliance on Eaton is misplaced. In Eaton, the appellant was a witness that called his assailant “chicken-shit” during his testimony-the utterance was not directed at the judge. Id. In contrast, Appellant shouted “piece of shit” in a loud angry tone at the conclusion of her boyfriend's sentencing hearing (Doc. No. 1; Doc. No. 11, at 9), which she had attended on his behalf (Doc. No. 7, at 2), and which concluded with the magistrate judge's recommendation that he receive a fifteen-year sentence (Doc. No. 11-1, at 9). The reason for her attendance and the timing of her outburst make clear that it was directed at the magistrate judge. Because “[a]n outburst of foul language directed at the court is intolerable misbehavior in the courtroom and falls within the prohibition of section 401(1) and Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 42(b), ” Appellant's assertion that her outburst did not constitute criminal contempt as a matter of law is OVERRULED. See in re Sealed Case, 627 F.3d 1235, 1238 (D.C. Cir. 2010); see also Peoples, 698 F.3d at 193 (upholding a contempt conviction where a defendant reentered the courtroom while the judge was off the bench and said, “[t]ell Judge Currie get the f-- off all my cases. I started to tell her something there. I started to tell her ass something today”).

         Appellant argues, in the alternative, that even if the utterance of an expletive could be contemptuous “there is insufficient evidence to sustain the conviction here and, more specifically, that there is not sufficient evidence that the third and fourth elements of contempt have been satisfied. (Doc. No. 11, at 15). Criminal contempt has four elements: “(1) misbehavior of a person, (2) which is in or near to the presence of the Court, (3) which obstructs the administration of justice, and (4) which is committed with the required degree of criminal intent.” Goode, 545 Fed.Appx. at 198 (internal quotation and citation omitted). “Obstruction of the administration of justice” requires “some act that will interrupt the orderly process of the administration of justice or thwart the judicial process.” United States v. Warlick, 742 F.2d 113, 115-16 (4th Cir. 1984). The effect of the obstructive conduct does not have to be great. Peoples, 698 F.3d at 189. A defendant's conduct can satisfy the obstruction element if it “distracted court personnel from, and delayed them in, completing their duties.” Goode, 545 Fed.Appx. at 198 (internal quotation and alteration omitted). In addition, there comes a point where “mere words are so offensive and so unnecessary that their very utterance creates a delay which is an obstruction of justice.” Gordon v. United States, 592 F.2d 1215, 1217 (1st Cir. 1979).

         Here, Appellant disrupted the entire courtroom by yelling loudly enough that everyone could hear. (Doc. No. 1). Further, her expletive “piece of shit!” was clearly directed at the magistrate judge. See supra at 3. Appellant's behavior delayed the magistrate judge and court personnel from moving on to new matters, a marshal had to leave his post to stop Appellant from leaving the courtroom, and a clerk had to create a new case for this matter. Those facts clearly constitute obstruction. See Peoples, 698 F.3d at 191 (holding that misbehavior “delayed court personnel and distracted them from the performance of their judicial duties” where judge was in jury room but the outburst forced court personnel “to leave the work that they were doing and deal with the statement that the defendant made”); see also United States v. Schurring, No. 5:15CR186, 2016 WL 2654508, at *5 (N.D. Ohio May 6, 2016) (finding sufficient obstruction where two deputies had been delayed from their normal duties because they had to discuss the contemptuous behavior and fill out a report).

         Appellant's behavior also satisfied the fourth element of contempt. The criminal intent necessary for contempt is “a volitional act done by one who knows or should reasonably be aware that his conduct is wrongful.” Warlick, 742 F.2d at 117 (internal quotation omitted). “[O]f course, an actual design to subvert the administration of justice is [a] more grievous and perhaps more culpable state of mind, but proof of such an evil motive is unnecessary to establish the required intent.” Id. (internal quotation omitted). Appellant's disruptive outburst of profanity-timed as she exited the courtroom to avoid accountability-was “self-evidently intended to show contempt for the court.” See United States v. Marshall, 371 F.3d 42, 46 (2d Cir. 2004) (finding that an appellant's statement that a district judge “kiss my ass and your wife can suck my dick” satisfied contempt's criminal intent requirement). Thus, Appellant's allegation that the magistrate judge erred when finding that Appellant's conduct constituted contempt is OVERRULED.

         B. Use of Summary ...

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