Judge Sentences Man to 6 Months in Jail for Yawning


yawnClifton Williams arrived at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet and sat in the fourth-floor courtroom where his cousin was pleading guilty to a felony drug charge. As Circuit Judge Daniel Rozak handed down the cousin’s sentence — 2 years’ probation — Williams, 33, stretched and let out a very ill-timed yawn. Williams’ sentence? Six months in jail — the maximum penalty for criminal contempt without a jury trial. The Richton Park man was locked up July 23 and will serve at least 21 days.

“I was flabbergasted because I didn’t realize a judge could do that,” said Williams’ father, Clifton Williams Sr. “It seems to me like a yawn is an involuntary action.”

Chuck Pelkie, a spokesman for the state’s attorney’s office, said the prosecutor in the courtroom that day told him that “it was not a simple yawn — it was a loud and boisterous attempt to disrupt the proceedings.”

Jason Mayfield, the cousin of Williams who was pleading guilty at the time, said it was “not an outrageous yawn.”

A Tribune review of a decade’s worth of contempt-of-court charges reveals that Rozak jails people — typically spectators whose cell phones go off or who scream or shout profanity during sentencing — at a far higher rate than any other judge in the county. There are now 30 judges in the 12th Judicial Circuit, but since 1999, Rozak has brought more than a third of all the contempt charges, records show.

And while it is not uncommon for judges to jail people for ignoring subpoenas or court orders or appearing in court drunk or under the influence of drugs, Rozak’s charges tend to involve behavior that would not otherwise be criminal.

Judges have broad discretion under the law, which defines contempt as acts that embarrass, hinder or obstruct the court in its administration of justice or lessen its authority or dignity. As long as the sentence is not longer than 6 months, there is no review of the case — unless the offender appeals to the judge or a higher court.

“We want judges to be able to manage the courtroom … but we have some concern that when the contempt is personal, judges might react too harshly,” said University of Chicago law professor Adam Samaha. “Contempt that happens right in the judge’s face is likely to trigger an emotional reaction.”

Observers describe Rozak as running the type of strict courtroom that was common a few decades ago. Defense attorneys say Rozak is “tough but fair” and runs particularly well-managed trials. Rozak has been elected in 2000 and 2006, both times with recommendations from the state bar association.

“I think he’s terrific — he understands how the world works,” said Joliet defense attorney David Carlson. “Some of the most serious felonies we have are handled in his courtroom, so I think there should be a level of seriousness and decorum.”

So far this year, five criminal contempt charges have been brought by Will County judges. Four of them were brought by Rozak, including the case of Derrick Lee, a Joliet man who “resisted” sitting where sheriff’s deputies directed him, talked in a “very loud” voice during court and referred to Rozak as “boss,” according to the judge’s contempt order. Lee, who also was wanted on an outstanding warrant, was sentenced to 30 days but was released two days later after apologizing.

Chief Judge Gerald Kinney said he couldn’t comment on the propriety of Williams’ case, but said he would have liked a more detailed order from Rozak in imposing the maximum penalty. He was not aware that Rozak brings a high percentage of contempt charges and said he has not received a significant number of complaints about the judge.

Rozak could not be reached for comment.

Rozak’s order sentencing Williams to 6 months in jail found that he “raised his hands while at the same time making a loud yawning sound” that caused the judge to “break from the proceedings.”

“I really can’t believe I’m in jail,” Williams wrote his family in a letter. “I done set (sic) in this [expletive] a week so far for nothing.”

People in other Will County courtrooms have received less severe sentences for seemingly more flagrant offenses. In Judge Richard Schoenstedt’s court last year, a woman was disruptive during closing arguments of a trial; shouted, “This is bull …” as she was led away; was held to the floor by a deputy; and “continued to be disruptive” after later being brought back before the judge. She received a 7-day sentence for contempt, records show.

Rozak has sentenced more spectators to jail for infractions involving cell phones than any other judge in Will County in the last decade. In 2003, a man who called the judge an “ass” after Rozak ordered him to turn over the phone when it rang in court was sentenced to 10 days but did just 24 hours after apologizing to the judge.

Three years later, a man twice refused to turn over his ringing cell phone to a deputy and then, his phone ringing before the bench, refused to hand it to Rozak. He also received a 6-month sentence, but it was reduced to 18 days after the man apologized, records show.

In the two-story brick home where Williams had been living with his aunt Cheryl Mayfield and caring for his 79-year-old grandmother, family members said they were in shock over the sentence but were unable to afford an attorney to appeal.

“This is ridiculous — you’ve got all these people shooting up kids, and here this boy yawns in court [and gets 6 months]. It’s crazy,” she said. “This could happen to any one of us.”

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