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United States v. Peoples, No. 11-4963 and No. 11-4965

Decided: October 23, 2012

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Peoples’ conviction for contempt of Judge Currie and reversed his conviction for contempt of Judge Conrad.

Peoples, a former inmate, brought a number of § 1983 claims against prison officials in federal district court before Judge Cameron McGowan Currie.  Peoples was late to jury selection and was warned by Judge Currie that failure to appear on time would cause her to dismiss his cases with prejudice.  Despite such a warning, Peoples was late to court multiple times thereafter and Judge Currie dismissed his case.  When the jury was brought back into the courtroom to be dismissed, Peoples muttered under his breath, “I was wanting to dismiss my sh—anyway.”  After the jury was dismissed, Judge Currie went to the jury room to thank the jurors for their service; Peoples reentered the courtroom and approached the deputy clerk, Sara Samsa.  Peoples repeated several times to Samsa, “Tell Judge Currie to get the f— off all my cases.  I started to tell her something there.  I started to tell her ass something today.”  The next day, Judge Currie issued a Rule to Show Cause why criminal contempt sanctions should not be imposed, recused herself, and requested the contempt proceedings be referred to another judge.

The case was referred to Robert Conrad, Jr., Chief Judge of the Western District of North Carolina.  Peoples arrived more than one hour late for his trial, and Judge Conrad informed him that at the conclusion of the trial for contempt of Judge Currie, the court would hold a separate trial for contempt to Judge Conrad.  Peoples was found guilty of contempt of Judge Currie and sentenced him to four months imprisonment.  Immediately after the first trial, Judge Conrad gave Peoples time to consult with his attorney in the courtroom while court was still in session.  Peoples addressed the court in the second trial and explained his car trouble had caused his tardiness.  Judge Conrad found him guilty of criminal contempt and sentenced him to an additional 30 days incarceration consecutive to the four months previously imposed.

Peoples appealed his convictions challenging the sufficiency of evidence.  To convict someone of criminal contempt, the Government must establish beyond a reasonable doubt: (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.  On review, the Fourth Circuit held that the record established each element was satisfied for Peoples’ conviction of contempt of Judge Currie.  However, the Fourth Circuit reversed Peoples’ conviction of Judge Conrad because he was not provided with sufficient notice and his tardiness or absence from court was not an adequate basis to fall within the summary punishment provision of Rule 42(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.  Therefore, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Peoples’ conviction for contempt of Judge Currie and reversed the conviction for contempt of Judge Conrad.

Full Opinion

-Jennifer B. Routh