Friday, September 22nd, 2006

Act of Contempt Committed in Courthouse Cafeteria Does Not Qualify as Act Occurring “in the Court’s Presence or So Near Thereto”

United States v. Rangolan, Docket No. 04-5126-cr (2d Cir. Sep. 21, 2006) (Calabresi, Parker, Wesley): Another great win by Ed Zas of this Office. The Circuit vacates on sufficiency grounds Rangolan’s criminal contempt conviction for violating 18 U.S.C. § 401(1), prohibiting “[m]isbehavior of any person in [the court’s] presence or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice.” Essentially, Rangolan was convicted under § 401(1) for approaching a juror, during a civil trial in which Rangolan was a plaintiff, in the cafeteria of the courthouse, at 9:15 a.m. (and thus before the trial session started that day), and showing the juror a document supporting Rangolan’s claims. The cafeteria was on the 1st floor, while the trial was occurring on the 10th floor.

The Circuit vacates the conviction, finding that Rangolan’s contumacious act did not occur “in the court’s presence or so near thereto” within the meaning of § 401(1). It relied principally on the fact that the act occurred at a location geographically distant from the courtroom and at a time when court was not in session, but also considered the “non-judicial” nature of the place where the act occurred. Here’s the money paragraph:

“Rangolan’s misbehavior occurred not in court, but in a cateteria ten floors below the courtroom. Unlike jury rooms, or immediately adjacent hallways, the cafeteria is not a place ‘set apart’ for official court business, or for the use of jurors or other trial participants. The juror was not on official business but was simply having breakfast. Moreover, Rangolan’s misbehavior took place at 9:15 a.m., before the court was in session. [citation omitted]. Deeming the court ‘present’ in a public cafeteria ten floors below the courtroom and not shown to have been separated out for court business, at a time when court is not in session, distorts the important geographical and temporal limitations Congress intended when it passed . . . § 401(1) to, in part, limit the contempt power.”

Op.11. Unfortunately, the opinion does not clarify whether all, or only some, of these factors — geographic proximity, temporal relatedness, and functional equivalence — must be present to sustain a § 401(1) conviction. But since none of these conditions attained in Rangolan’s case — the act occurred in a “non-judicial” location not near the courtroom and at a time when court was not in session — vacatur of her conviction was required.

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