police courts | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction 

Police Courts are lower-level courts that handle minor crimes and violations, often working as the first point of contact between offenders and the legal system.

Let’s start by breaking down what “Police Courts” are. In the criminal justice system, not all courts are the same. Some courts deal with serious crimes like murder, while others handle smaller issues like traffic tickets. Police Courts fall into this second category. Above all, these courts handle minor offenses, often referred to as “misdemeanors,” and various violations.

The main reason Police Courts exist is to make the legal process faster and more efficient. After all, if every case, whether big or small, went to a higher-level court, the system would be slow and clogged. Accordingly, Police Courts speed things up by focusing on lesser crimes. These can range from shoplifting to public intoxication.

The Role of a Judge in Police Courts

In Police Courts, a judge is usually the primary authority. Unlike higher courts, where there might be a jury, most cases are decided by a judge alone. The judge not only decides if someone is guilty but also determines the punishment. This could be a fine, community service, or sometimes even a short jail sentence.

How Cases Get to Police Courts

When a police officer arrests someone for a minor crime, the case will likely end up in such a court. After the arrest, the offender is usually given a court date. When that day comes, they appear before a judge to either contest the charges or plead guilty.

Types of Cases in Police Courts

Both criminal and civil matters can be addressed in these courts. Common criminal cases include petty theft and disorderly conduct. On the civil side, these courts handle things like minor property disputes or small claims cases.

The Process Inside Police Courts

If you’ve ever been to one, you’ll notice these courts are generally less formal than higher-level courts. When your case is called, you stand before the judge who reviews the charges against you. You can either admit guilt or contest the charges. If you admit guilt, the judge issues a sentence. If you contest, a short trial occurs, usually right then and there.

What Happens After?

Afterward, if the judge finds you guilty, you might have to pay a fine or complete community service. In some instances, you can appeal the decision to a higher court, but this is rare for minor offenses. All things considered, most people complete their sentences and move on with their lives.

Police Courts and Your Rights

Even though these courts deal with minor offenses, your rights as a citizen don’t change. You still have the right to a fair trial and to legal representation. If you can’t afford a lawyer, the court might appoint one for you.

Controversial Aspects of Police Courts

Not everyone agrees that they are always fair. Critics argue that these courts can sometimes be too quick to judge, leaving little room for a proper defense. Additionally, they say that the fines imposed can be burdensome for low-income individuals.

Importance of Police Courts in Criminal Justice

All in all, these courts serve a crucial function in the criminal justice system. They help manage the large volume of minor offenses that occur every day. This allows higher-level courts to focus on more severe crimes, making the entire system more efficient.

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Last Modified: 08/24/2023

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