The Good News provides a monthly column with important content having to do with topics from the legal community. This month features a conversation with Robert Meacham, a director at Tripp Scott Law Firm, who represents a wide variety of clients in the fields of construction, business and real estate law, including litigation and transactional representation.
Courts can be scary places. Seemingly all-powerful robed judges hover behind a tall bench, gavel in hand. Court rules and language are often unfamiliar, no matter how many TV legal dramas we’ve watched. Typically, parties or loved ones are in court because something untoward has actually or allegedly occurred, and the outcome can affect financial well-being, future rights and even freedom. Even the kinds of courts and areas of law can be a mystery.
So in hopes of reducing the fear factor, we answer below some very basic questions on various levels and types of state courts and the varieties of cases assigned to each.
Bill Davell: What’s the difference between civil and criminal law?
Robert Meacham: Civil Law covers all non-criminal law and generally involves settling monetary or property-related disputes between private citizens.
In civil suits, a complaining party – the plaintiff(s) – alleges that some wrongdoing by the defending party – the defendants – caused personal or property damages, or adversely affected a plaintiff’s claimed rights. But a civil suit may also request that a court determine and “declare” the respective rights and responsibilities among the parties in a matter, force a defendant to undertake or fulfill certain obligations, or even stop – or “enjoin” – certain activities.
Civil law cases may involve contracts, property and family law as well as “torts,” which allege that injuries or damages were caused by the defendant’s negligence or recklessness.
Criminal cases are prosecuted by the state or federal government against citizens. Criminal laws fall into two general categories under Florida law:
- Misdemeanors: Minor crimes that can be punishable not only by fines, but also by imprisonment for less than one year in a county correctional facility; and
- Felonies: More serious crimes punishable by incarceration in a state or federal penitentiary for one year or more, all the way to the death penalty for murders involving one or more “aggravating factors.”
In addition, the state government prosecutes noncriminal violations, infractions not punishable by incarceration, including most minor traffic violations and other small offenses like littering, or fishing or hunting without a license. Note that more serious traffic violations, such as drunk driving, can rise to the level of crimes. Ordinance or code violations are excluded from this category.
BD: Are there other categories of the law citizens should be aware of?
RM: Yes. Under Florida’s Home Rule Power, counties and municipalities can create and enforce ordinances, codes, plans and resolutions, such as rules of doing business, zoning, property upkeep and other public safety issues.
BD: So what courts handle these different kinds of law?
RM: In the 1970s, Florida simplified and organized its system of courts into two levels of trial courts and two levels of appellate courts. These courts adjudicate both civil and criminal cases, as well as noncriminal violations, with the level to which the cases are assigned depending on their severity.
County: Florida’s Constitution created one county court in each of its 67 counties. County civil courts handle disputes involving $50,000 or less and small claims courts (which are part of the county court system) involve claims under $8,000, and most, but not all, landlord/tenant disputes.
County criminal courts hear criminal traffic cases and misdemeanor cases, as well as cases involving noncriminal violations.
Circuit: The Florida court system includes 20 judicial “circuits”, some encompassing multiple counties. The 17th Judicial Circuit covers Broward County alone.
On the civil side, circuit courts have jurisdiction over matters involving claims greater than $50,000 and cases not assigned by statute to the county courts. Circuit courts also hear appeals from county court civil cases.
On the criminal side, the circuit courts adjudicate felony cases and again, appeals of misdemeanor cases from county courts.
District Courts of Appeal: Florida has six district courts of appeal. Both civil and criminal cases decided in the 17th Judicial Circuit Court (i.e. Broward County) and 15th Judicial Circuit (Palm Beach County) are appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeals located in West Palm Beach. Courts in other counties are assigned to other district appellate courts.
Florida Supreme Court: The Florida Supreme Court is the highest court in Florida, and its decisions can only be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which generally is not required to grant review.
Much of the Florida Supreme Court’s caseload is also “discretionary,” which means it can decide whether or not to take a case to establish a “precedent,” or a decision that becomes binding law. It must take appeals (called “mandatory jurisdiction”) involving the death penalty and certain cases involving state bonds or indebtedness and reviewing utilities regulations. Other kinds of cases before the Supreme Court do not generally involve everyday citizens.
BD: Who enforces municipal or county ordinances?
RM: Such cases are heard before either code enforcement boards or special magistrates, depending on the jurisdiction. These agencies are not technically courts but are entities or judicial positions that municipalities or counties establish to adjudicate the enforcement of ordinances, codes and the like.
BD: Where do I start if I find myself dealing with any of these kinds of cases?
RM: The challenge of navigating this maze of offenses, judicial and quasi-judicial bodies is one reason it can be especially beneficial to start by consulting with an attorney.
Attorneys, like those in the wide variety of practice areas at Tripp Scott, not only know their way around the courts and enforcement entities but are also familiar with their differing procedures and rules, not to mention how individual judges and boards tend to handle the different cases – and parties – coming before them.
Lawyers also frequently know law enforcement personnel and prosecuting attorneys who handle criminal cases. Based on these relationships, they can often negotiate, outside of court, reduced charges or dropping of charges altogether in noncriminal or criminal violations or prevent severe or repeat offenses from being elevated from misdemeanors to felonies.
Getting connected with the right lawyer for the type of case you or a loved one may be involved with is as simple as visiting trippscott.com.
If you have any topics you think may be of interest to our readers, we encourage you to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more Ask Bill at: https://www.goodnewsfl.org/author/william-c-davell/