7th Circuit Nixes 30-Day Jail Term for Infomercial Pitchman Whose Fans Flooded Judge’s E-Mail Inbox
May 20, 2010
by Martha Neil
A 30-day jail term for criminal contempt imposed on an infomercial pitchman after his followers flooded a federal judge’s BlackBerry and courthouse computer inbox with e-mail has been nixed by the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Court of Appeals.
Because U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman didn’t actually see the conduct at issue, which occurred outside the courtroom, and there was no need for an immediate, emergency sanction to keep his courtroom functioning, his summary finding that Kevin Trudeau was in direct criminal contempt was inappropriate, according to the court’s opinion today.
And, because the summary disposition of the case, without an evidentiary hearing, hasn’t established a sufficient record to determine on appeal whether a criminal contempt finding was appropriate under standard procedures, the appeals court vacated not only Trudeau’s 30-day sentence but the contempt finding itself.
However, Trudeau could still be found in contempt on remand, after evidence is presented, the appeals court said. His followers sent some 300 e-mails to the judge within 36 hours, some with threatening overtones.
As the court recounts in the opinion, Trudeau was already in federal court in Chicago for a civil contempt proceeding when the e-mail issue intervened. Initially fined $40 million for violating a consent order requiring him not to misrepresent the contents of his books on television, he was awaiting a new penalty after the 7th Circuit overturned the $40 million fine.
Meanwhile, he wound up being held in criminal contempt after urging his fans to e-mail Gettleman. The resulting deluge reportedly crashed both the judge’s BlackBerry and his court computer. (Gettleman thought he had not made his e-mail address public, but Northwestern University School of Law, where he teaches as an adjunct, had included it on his faculty Web listing, the opinion notes.)