There are many different types of courts in Georgia, including state and federal courts, trial courts, and appellate courts. Aside from federal courts, the highest state court is the Georgia Supreme Court, which may choose to hear appeals from the Georgia Court of Appeals, has the final authority on the interpretation of the state Constitution, and governs the practice of law in Georgia (O.C.G.A. § 15-2-1 et al.; Chapter 3 of Title 15 of the O.C.G.A. § 15-3-1 et al.; Ga. Const. Art. VI, § 1, ¶ 1; Ga. Const. Art. VI, § VI, ¶ II).
There are a variety of state trial level courts in Georgia. Superior courts have original jurisdiction in numerous types of civil cases, serve as the exclusive trial court for the adjudication of felony criminal offenses, and serve as courts of appeal from decisions in municipal court (O.C.G.A. § 15-6-1 et al.). State courts are county-level trial courts that only exist in some counties and have jurisdiction over certain civil matters and misdemeanor criminal cases (O.C.G.A. § 15-7-1 et al.). Probate courts are countywide courts that in some areas hear traffic offenses that occur in the unincorporated area, and that oversee estate matters, gun and marriage licensing, and some election matters (O.C.G.A. § 15-9-1 et al.). Magistrate courts are county-level courts that hold first appearance hearings for state and superior court and have jurisdiction over county ordinance offenses. Magistrate judges also issue warrants authorizing searches and arrest (O.C.G.A. § 15-10-1 et al.). Municipal courts are city-level courts that have jurisdiction over traffic cases arising within the city limits, cases involving municipal ordinances, and certain specified misdemeanor offenses (O.C.G.A. § 36-32-1 et al.). Decisions in municipal court may be appealed to the superior court and from there to the Court of Appeals or possibly the Supreme Court (O.C.G.A. § 5-4-1 et al.).
The primary purpose of municipal court, like other trial courts, is to afford an impartial forum for the adjudication of disputes, which in municipal court usually involves a misdemeanor criminal defendant or someone accused of violating one or more provisions of an ordinance. In criminal matters, either misdemeanors or ordinance violations, the defendant is entitled to the protection of a host of federal and state constitutional rights. All parties appearing in court are entitled to due process, which generally means an opportunity to plead their case to a neutral judge and to present and challenge evidence (U.S. Const. Amendment 5 & 14). These rights also include the right to be represented by counsel and the right to have counsel appointed at government expense if the defendant cannot afford counsel (Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)). Misdemeanor defendants in Georgia are entitled to a jury trial (Geng v. State, 276 Ga. 428 (2003)). Although municipal courts have the authority to conduct bench trials, they do not have the authority to hold jury trials. Thus, in certain cases where criminal defendants insist on their right to a jury trial, a transfer of the case to a state or superior court may be required. Although some defendants may knowingly choose to waive their right to counsel, in order to hear a case, municipal court must provide lawyers to indigent defendants that request them (Alabama v. Shelton, 122 S.Ct. 1764 (2002)). It is necessary that interpreters be provided for defendants that have a limited proficiency in the English language at no cost to the defendant (Rule 14 of the Uniform Rules of Municipal Court).
The event that triggers a criminal case is either the issuance of a citation or an arrest. Citations are written notices that serve in lieu of arrest and typically give the defendant notice of the crime charged and a summons to appear in court. For some offenses, such as driving under the influence, a defendant is usually arrested. Once arrested, most defendants are able to post bail or bond in order to leave the jail and return to court at a later date to answer the charges. Defendants that fail to appear in court typically forfeit their bond. Courts usually issue warrants for a defendant’s arrest if they fail to appear. Although most of the offenses heard in municipal court are relatively minor in comparison to those heard in superior court, some of them carry mandatory jail time (e.g., O.C.G.A. § 40-6-391.). Additional procedural requirements in municipal court are covered by the Uniform Rules of Municipal Court.
State law authorizes municipal court to hear violations of state and local traffic laws that occur within the city limits. State traffic offenses are misdemeanors and may in some cases carry penalties of up to one year in prison and a one thousand dollar fine (O.C.G.A. § 17-10-3(a)(1)).
The state has authority to grant jurisdiction over certain misdemeanor offenses to municipal courts. The penalties that may be imposed for these offenses in municipal court are typically identified in the statute granting jurisdiction. Examples of these offenses include possession of less than one ounce of marijuana and shoplifting property valued at $300 or less (O.C.G.A. §§ 36-32-6, 36-32-9).
Cities may proscribe certain conduct that is not already prohibited by state law and provide for appropriate punishment (O.C.G.A. § 36-35-3). State law establishes that the maximum punishment for ordinance offenses is six months incarceration and fines of one thousand dollars per offense (O.C.G.A. § 36-35-6(a)(2)). Some municipal charters limit the city to lesser maximum punishments for ordinance offenses.
Not all ordinance cases that are heard in municipal court are strictly criminal in nature. For example, some cities have adopted nuisance abatement ordinances, which allow complaints to be brought against property owners for maintaining nuisances or allowing code violations to persist. In these instances, the city is either represented by a code enforcement officer, or a code enforcement officer is the city’s main witness. In such cases, in addition to traditional fines, the court has the power to order abatement of a nuisance, provided that the city can prove its case.
The presiding official in municipal court is the municipal court judge. A part-time judge or several full-time judges, or some combination of both, may staff municipal court depending on the size of the city’s caseload. State law requires that municipal court judges be attorneys and active members in good standing with the State Bar of Georgia, although non-lawyer judges that were serving as of June 30, 2011, may continue to do so as long as they continue to obtain mandatory annual training (O.C.G.A. § 36-32-1.1). Most municipal judges are appointed by the governing authority of the city, although a few are elected (O.C.G.A. § 36-32-2). Municipal court judges can only be removed for cause by a two-thirds’ vote of the entire membership of the governing authority of the city (O.C.G.A. § 36-32-2.1). The conduct of municipal court judges, like that of all judges in the state, is prescribed by the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct, adherence to which is enforced by the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) and the Supreme Court of Georgia. The JQC and the Supreme Court have the authority to remove a judge from the bench for violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct (GCJC). Judges have the duty to sit in an impartial manner and advise defendants of their rights. They are prohibited from participating in ex parte communications with municipal officials. Ex parte communication means “on one side only”. In this context, judges may not communicate in substance about a case with only one side, without a representative of the other side of a case present (Black’s Law Dictionary, West Publishing (10th ed. 2014)). Municipal court judges are required to obtain training from the Municipal Courts Training Council (O.C.G.A. § 36-32-27).
Typically, most municipal courts are staffed by one or more court administrators or clerks employed by the city that must answer to both the city governing authority and the judges. Court staff is governed by the same set of ethical rules that governs judicial behavior. Court employees are thus also barred from engaging in ex parte communication with parties and from giving legal advice to parties appearing before the court. The tasks of municipal court clerks, which include processing warrants and sentences issued by the judge and collecting fines and fees paid into the court, require careful diligence. Failure to properly process paperwork can lead to false arrest, and failure to properly administer court fees is in many instances a crime itself (e.g., O.C.G.A. § 15-21-134). Employees assigned to work in municipal court should thus be properly trained. State law requires that municipal court clerks receive annual training (O.C.G.A. § 36-32-13).
As stated above, defendants in municipal court that are unable to afford an attorney are entitled to have one appointed to represent them at the city’s expense if they face the possibility of incarceration. Defendants attempting to assert their rights to indigent counsel usually complete an application indicating their income and assets as well as their debts and liabilities. Lawyers provided to criminal defendants are often called “public defenders.” Cities can provide these lawyers through several different mechanisms. Cities can choose to have an appointed list through which the municipal court judge will appoint lawyers to represent different defendants at a set rate. Cities can also hire full-time or part-time lawyers to appear in court and handle cases of indigent defendants that request counsel. The Georgia Public Defender Council is charged with promulgating standards for how many cases a public defender can handle, the minimum qualifications for such attorneys, and establishing standards for determining the financial eligibility of persons claiming indigence (O.C.G.A. § 17-12-1 et. seq.). Because public defenders represent the criminal defendant, even if their employer is the government, they must abide by the ethical rules that govern lawyers and zealously represent the defendant’s position under the rules of the adversary system.
Municipalities are authorized to appoint prosecuting attorneys to represent the city’s interest in cases in municipal court. Prosecuting attorneys must be members in good standing of the State Bar of Georgia and admitted to practice in the appellate courts of Georgia (O.C.G.A. § 15-18-91 et seq.). Depending on the size of the city’s caseload, prosecutors can be part-time or full-time. Full-time municipal court prosecutors may not engage in the private practice of law, and part-time municipal court prosecutors may not engage in private practice in municipal court nor appear in private practice in any matter in which they have exercised jurisdiction as a prosecutor (O.C.G.A. § 15-18-94). Although state law merely authorizes and does not mandate the appointment of a municipal court prosecutor, it is particularly important that cities have attorneys representing the prosecution in criminal cases that carry mandatory jail time such as driving under the influence, where failure to create a proper record can result in costly appeals and conviction reversals.
Because most of the cases in municipal court are criminal, persons found guilty are issued a criminal sentence. The sentence typically includes a fine, but may also include jail time for certain offenses. In some instances, defendants are sentenced to probation in order to require them to comply with certain conditions of their sentence. Failure to comply with the terms of probation may trigger a probation revocation hearing. Should the city prove that a defendant has violated his or her probation, the judge may choose to revoke all or a portion of a probated sentence and send a defendant to jail. Probation is a mechanism used by courts to encourage defendants to meet certain conditions rather than send them to jail. If the conditions of probation are met, a defendant usually has their case closed. Conditions of probation can include such things as payment of fines, community service, and attendance at driver safety courses. Municipalities can choose to operate their own probation department with city employees or they can contract with private probation companies to perform the service (O.C.G.A. § 42-8-101). If a municipality chooses to have its own employees serve as probation officers, they must receive training required by state law (O.C.G.A. § 35-8-13.1). Both the municipal court judge and the governing authority of the city must agree to a contract with a private probation company (O.C.G.A. § 42-8-101).
Because most of the offenses heard in municipal court are minor in nature, fines are the most common punishments imposed. The amounts of fines are limited by the statute or ordinance creating the offense, the general state law parameters for misdemeanors, or by the municipal charter (O.C.G.A. § 17-10-3).
Fees or “fine add-ons,” as they are sometimes called, are imposed in addition to a defendant’s fine. These are usually imposed by state law and require that either additional percentages of the amount of the fine or flat amounts be sent to different governmental agencies. These fees must be carefully accounted for and distributed to the appropriate agencies in accordance with state law.
Although most of the cases in municipal court do not result in jail time, some offenses carry mandatory jail time. On some occasions, courts may revoke probation, which results in a defendant having to serve jail time. Incarceration is very costly, as adequate facilities are a constitutional requirement. Most cities contract with the county for the provision of jail services for any municipal court defendants that are sentenced to incarceration.