You and your soon to be ex-spouse are going through a highly contested divorce proceeding. You believe that your spouse does not play by the rules, and your spouse believes that you are hiding assets. The unfortunate aspect of your divorce is that you have three young children, and there are child custody orders which grant both you and your spouse joint legal and joint physical custody of your children. In conjunction with those orders, you have a child visitation schedule with your three children on a week-on, week-off time-sharing schedule, with exchanges to take place every Sunday at 6:00pm.
It never fails that whenever there is a major sporting event on television, your spouse NEVER exchanges the children on time. In fact, your spouse is always hours late to the exchange, and you never can count on receiving the children on time. This last Sunday, October 28, 2012, the San Francisco Giants were playing the Detroit Tigers for the World Series. If the San Francisco Giants won the game, they would have been crowed the World Series Champion. Well, you knew, just as it always happens, that your spouse would not exchange the children on time. In fact, on this October 28, 2012, after the San Francisco Giant beat the Detroit Tigers to win the World Series, your spouse did not exchange the children but withheld them from you. As far as you were concerned, this was the last straw and you wanted to know how you could compel your spouse to abide to the rules set forth by your child custody court order.
The answer is simple. You have the right to file an action for contempt against your spouse. An action for contempt is a quasi-criminal matter. If found guilty, your spouse could actually be sent to jail or could instead receive a sentence requiring them to perform a significant amount of community service.
Actions for contempt are governed by California Code of Civil Procedure §1209 et al, which states that "(5) Disobedience of any lawful judgment, order, or process of the Court..." are contempts of the authority of the court. CCP §1209(5). Pursuant to CCP §1218(c), in any action where a party is found in contempt pursuant to the family code, "the court shall order the contemner to perform community service of up to 120 hours, or to be imprisoned up to 120 hours, for each count of contempt." In addition, CCP §1218 prescribes a fine and/or punishment and provides that for each act of contempt the contemnor may be fined up to $1,000.00.
"The purpose of...civil contempt proceeding is not to punish but to secure future compliance with the orders of court..." Wilson v. Superior Court (1987) 194 Cal.App.3d 1259, 1275, citing Toussaint v. McCarthy (N.D.Cal 1984) 597 F.Supp. 1427, 1431.
In order for a party to be held in contempt of Court for disobedience of any lawful order, "the acts constituting the contempt must be clearly and specifically prohibited..." Brunton v. Superior Court (1942) 20 Cal.2d 202, 205. In fact, the "most basic premise in the law of contempt is that such punishment can only rest upon clear, intentional violation of a specific, narrowly drawn order." Wilson v. Superior Court (1987) 194 Cal.App.3d 1259, 1273.
In your case, where your spouse has consistently disobeyed a Court order requiring exchanges of your children to take place each Sunday at 6:00pm, a Court may find that each instance of your spouse failing to return the children to you on time is a separate and distinct charge of contempt. Therefore, if your spouse has not returned the children on time on five different occasions, theoretically, your spouse could be held in contempt of five distinct charges. Under this scenario, your spouse could be sentenced to over 600 hours of community services, or fined up to $5,000.00.