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Jail time for a yawn is a heavy-handed judgment

If you search for the word "yawn" on the Internet this week, you'll find more than 68,000 hits that refer to what happened in a Chicago-suburb courtroom recently.

That's when a Chicago-area judge, busy at the time sentencing a fellow to probation for a drug charge, took a break to throw the defendant's cousin in jail for six months on a contempt charge.

The offense was yawning loudly in the judge's courtroom.

It seems that his honor values decorum above common sense or the taxpayer's dollar. The 33-year-old man has been sitting in jail ever since. News reports say that if he apologizes at a hearing today, he may be released. But that won't come in time to prevent him from forfeiting a job he was supposed to start, the news reports say. And it probably won't head off the slew of jokes on late-night TV or a potential lawsuit.

Way to foster respect for your courtroom, sir.

The Chicago Tribune reports that this particular judge likes slapping people with contempt charges if he doesn't approve of their behavior. He's especially fond of nailing spectators who forgot to turn off their cell phones when they entered his courtroom.

There's been some debate about whether it was a yawn or a "boisterous" show of disrespect for the judge. A prosecutor in court at the time allegedly told someone who told the media that it was not a "normal" yawn.

That part made me laugh, because one of my relatives has a show-stopper yawn that I mistook for a seizure, complete with sound effects, the first time I saw and heard it. After a while, you get used to it. But I guarantee you'll notice it the first time, and you might be tempted to think that he's being obnoxious. After years of observation, I can vouch that it is, in fact, simply how he yawns.

But even if the offending yawn was something less innocent, you have to wonder if incarceration at the taxpayer's expense is the best way to deal with it.

We all know about jail overcrowding. We've all heard about how expensive it is to keep someone in jail. Surely that should be reserved for something more serious than a yawn. If you are really ticked, levy a small fine or a few hours of community service. Or thunder at him to knock it off.

More than anything, this particular case trivializes something that is supposed to correct real problems, including bona fide disruptions of court proceedings, serious shows of disrespect and disregard for legitimate court orders and procedures.

This week, a prosecutor was jailed for contempt because he did not provide documents to which a defendant was entitled, thus reportedly impeding the right to a fair trial. Another lawyer was jailed for disobeying a gag order.

The owner of a sports team faced a contempt hearing because he reportedly released sensitive information about concessions that were being sought as part of one of the bids for his team, which he's trying to sell, in violation of a confidentiality order. The court planned to hold a hearing to determine if he did violate it and should be held in contempt.

A pair of school administrators face contempt charges for disobeying an injunction.

That each day people are convicted of actual crimes and receive suspended sentences or probation or a few days in jail, while this guy was sentenced to six full months in jail for yawning is just ludicrous — to the point where I don't think it really matters too much whether he yawned involuntarily or was being somewhat disruptive.

He ultimately looks better than the judge, whose heavy-handedness can only be viewed with, ironically, contempt.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.