In Kansas, not all cases originate in district court. Many cases are conducted by the state’s subdivisions, municipalities such as counties or cities. The goal of the municipalities is to help manage the lives of citizens across the state. These “arms of state” are still the government and are subject to restraints outlined by the Constitution and Kansas state law. These restraints are most noticeable when it comes to appeals. Below is an overview of the municipal court appeals process.
Article 12, Section 5 of the Kansas Constitution states that municipalities can create and enforce their own laws. City prosecutors will try the cases which are considered violations of city ordinances. Ordinances govern minor matters, such as noise ordinances and traffic laws. A municipal court judge will handle all trials, not a jury. Kansas does not require a municipal court judge to be an attorney and municipal trials are more informal than trials at district court. It is also common for individuals to represent themselves in municipal court.
Municipal courts still deal with serious cases that implement Constitutional rights and protections for the accused. A municipal court defendant has the right to confront their accuser and the right against self-incrimination. Unfortunately, these rights are waived or ignored when a defendant tries to defend themselves pro so. Ordinances, like all crimes, have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. One right that is absent in municipal court is the right to a jury trial. The United States Supreme Court held that “petty offenses” are not entitled to the right to a jury trial as guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment. In Blanton v. City of North Las Vegas, a petty offense was defined as one that carries either a fine of $5,000 or more or incarceration beyond 6 months. This standard means that the vast majority of city ordinance violations will not be covered by the right to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment.
Municipal courts must operate inside their own jurisdiction. This limited jurisdiction means than municipal courts can’t hear felony crimes or state misdemeanor crimes. A municipal court also has to make sure their ordinances do not go against state laws. In State v. Jenkins the city of Wichita impermissibly charged Jenkins with an ordinance violation of theft. Due to his past convictions, Jenkins qualified for a felony theft charge. The Kansas Supreme Court stated that a city can’t prosecute an ordinance when the state had previously criminalized the conduct as a more serious crime; they can only do so when the state declines to prosecute.
Appealing A Municipal Court Judgment
Section 22-3609 permits a convicted defendant to appeal their case to the district, or state level, court. This appeal request must be made within two weeks of the conviction. A state judge will hear the case unless the defendant requests a jury trial. Unlike appeals to Kansas’ higher courts, municipal cases are reviewed, “de novo”, meaning the city has to reprove every element of the violation. New evidence can be introduced by both sides as well. When the ordinance violation is decided, that decision is final, there is no need to send the case back to a municipal judge.
All of the familiar requirements of district court are present in this review. The judge who hears these cases are the same judges who hear felony cases. The rules of evidence are also used at trial. Further, the accused again has Constitutional rights. Finally, section 22-3402 mandates that the appeal be tried within 180 days, absent special circumstances.
Municipal violations are not to be taken lightly. Although they carry lesser penalties than misdemeanors and felonies, they can still carry large fines and incarceration. This relaxed nature can lead to individuals wanting to defend themselves pro se. However, hiring a criminal defense lawyer is still beneficial to help avoid large fines, convictions on your record, and incarceration. Even if a municipal conviction has resulted, an experienced attorney could possibly get it overturned on appeal. The short timeline to decide to appeal a conviction means no time can be wasted in hiring a lawyer. If you have been charged with a crime or want to appeal a municipal court decision for any Johnson County city including Prairie Village, Olathe, Fairway, Lenexa, Mission, Merriam, Shawnee, or Overland Park, please feel free to contact our office.