Understanding Court Procedures
The Municipal Court is the judicial branch of Phoenix city government and is also a part of the State of Arizona court system. This information is intended to provide a brief description of the options available to you when you are required to appear in this Court and the steps that are involved in the various court processes.
The types of offenses that are heard in the Civil Division courtrooms include civil traffic, minor criminal traffic, parking, and environmental charges. Major criminal traffic and non-traffic criminal misdemeanor violations are heard in the Criminal Division courtrooms. The Court also handles Orders of Protection and Injunctions Against Harassment.
Whenever you are required to appear in Court, you should observe the courtroom standards.
YOUR RIGHTS AND DUTIES IN COURT
The information included here is intended to help you understand court proceedings and inform you of your rights and duties. The Court wants every person who leaves here to feel that he or she has had a fair and impartial resolution to his or her case.
As you read through this information, it will be helpful to note that the terms "Hearing," "Responsible," "Not Responsible" and "Admit and Explain" apply to civil violations, while the terms "Trial," "Guilty," "Not Guilty," and "No Contest," and "Motion Hearing" apply to criminal violations.
NOTE: If you fail to appear for any scheduled court date, or fail to meet any sentencing requirements imposed on you as a result of a responsible or guilty finding, a warrant may be issued for your arrest and/or a default judgment may be entered. Your driving privileges may also be suspended by the Motor Vehicle Division.
- No weapons of any kind are permitted in the Municipal Court building. Eating, drinking, gum chewing or using any items or materials that create noise and disruption are not permitted in the courtroom.
- Arrive in enough time to be seated in the designated courtroom by your scheduled time.
- Sit quietly while in the courtroom, and do not talk while Court is in session. The proceedings are being recorded and background noise may interfere with the quality of the recording.
- Pagers and cell phones should be turned off in the courtroom.
- Observe standards of courteous behavior in the hallways outside the courtroom.
- Observe appropriate standards of dress. Shoes and shirts must be worn and T-shirts that display offensive slogans or pictures are not appropriate. In general, hats should not be worn in the courtroom.
- Smoking is prohibited by law in all areas of government buildings. There are designated smoking areas available outside the Court building.
- Avoid bringing small children to Court. Parents may be asked to remove children from the courtroom if the children become disruptive.
- Ensure that you have made provisions in advance for the care of your children if there is a possibility that you could be booked into jail immediately after a court proceeding.
IF YOU RECEIVED A TRAFFIC COMPLAINT
The Arizona Traffic Ticket and Complaint you received includes a court date and time. By the time of your court appearance you will need to decide how you want to plead to your charge(s). If you received a complaint containing more than one charge, you will need to enter a plea for each charge. You are not required to enter the same plea for each charge.
There are three possible pleas you may enter:
This plea means that you admit to having committed the charge.
2. Admit and Explain/No Contest:
This plea means that you do not wish to contest the charge and you are allowing a Hearing Officer or Judge to enter a ruling that has the same consequence as a Responsible/Guilty plea without you admitting your responsibility/guilt. You will be given an opportunity to explain what happened before sentence is imposed, just as you would with a Responsible/Guilty plea.
3. Not Responsible/Not Guilty:
This plea means that you deny that you committed the violation and that you wish to contest the charge. The State must then attempt to prove the charge against you at a hearing or trial.
Once You Have Decided Upon Your Plea, You Have The Following Options:
If your plea is Responsible/Guilty, or Admit and Explain/No Contest, you may:
a) Pay, by mail or in person, the amount of the sanction/fine and the applicable fees as listed on the information envelope on or before your court date, unless otherwise stated on the information envelope given to you by the Police Officer, or
b) Appear in Court on your assigned Court date to see a Judge and enter your plea of "Responsible/Guilty" or "Admit and Explain/No Contest" and the judge will determine a sanction/fine at that time.
If your plea is Not Responsible/Not Guilty, you may:
a) Request, by mail or fax (see last page for address and fax numbers), that the charge be set for a hearing/trial. Your request for a hearing must be received by the Court before the date of your first scheduled Court appearance;
b) Appear in Court on your assigned date to see a Judge to have your charge set for hearing/trial.
DEFENSIVE DRIVING PROGRAM
For many civil traffic charges, and a few minor criminal traffic charges, you also have the option of attending a Defensive Driving Program, if you are eligible, and after completion of the program the charge will be dismissed. If you have attended a defensive driving class for an Arizona charge issued within the last 24 months, you are not eligible for this option. If you have been cited for more than one charge on your complaint, only one can be dismissed by attending the Defensive Driving Program. You will have to enter a plea on any other charges.
Not all charges are eligible for this program. The envelope you received from the Police Officer will tell you if the code with which you have been cited is eligible, and provide other eligibility and registration information.
CIVIL TRAFFIC CHARGE
Civil traffic charges are violations of the State of Arizona Revised Statutes or Phoenix City Code. Examples of such charges are as follows:
- Running a Red Light;
- Failure to Stop for a Stop Sign;
- Failure to Provide A Driver License;
- Failure to Produce Proof of Insurance.
If your traffic charge is marked as a civil violation, you are entitled to a hearing if you choose to plead not responsible. This is similar to a trial but there will be no Prosecutor present to represent the State. Instead, a Judge may ask you, the Police Officer, and other witnesses questions to find out what happened. You will have an opportunity to ask questions of the witnesses when it is your turn to present your defense. You may testify on your own behalf as part of your defense. You may present to the Court documents and other prepared exhibits as evidence that support your position. The Judge will rule on the testimony and other evidence presented based on a preponderance of the evidence, which means the State must prove that, more likely than not, you committed the violation.
To find you responsible, the Judge must consider the testimony and other evidence presented at the hearing and decide whether it is more probable than not that you committed the traffic violation charged. In a civil traffic hearing, the burden of proof required for a Judge to make a finding of responsible is less than at a criminal trial.
MINOR CRIMINAL TRAFFIC CHARGE
Examples of minor criminal traffic charges are as follows:
- Failure to Obey Officer;
- Speed (in excess of 21 mph or school zone);
- School Bus violations;
- Failure to Provide ID;
- Fictitious Plates
If your traffic charge is marked as a criminal violation, you are entitled to a trial if you choose to plead not guilty. The State is represented by a Prosecutor who must prove the charges against you beyond a reasonable doubt. The State presents its case first by calling witnesses to testify against you. You will be allowed to hear all the testimony against you and if you wish, after each witness has testified, you will have a turn to ask the witness questions. You may only ask questions of witnesses for the State at this time. After the State has presented its case, you may present your defense. You may call witnesses who know something about the incident to testify for you. You may testify on your own behalf, but you are not required to do so. If you do not testify, your silence cannot be used against you.
Parking charges are violations of the Phoenix City Code that regulate the stopping and standing of motor vehicles. If you receive a parking Notice of Violation (i.e. "Parking ticket") and do not pay it by the due date as indicated on the Notice, a complaint is then filed with the Court, and the Court issues a summons with a court date for you to appear. As with any other civil charge, you are entitled to a hearing.
Environmental charges are violations of the Phoenix City Code that generally regulate land uses. Typically, these are violations of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance which regulates the protection of neighborhoods from blighting and other deteriorating conditions that have a negative effect on area property values and can cause public health, safety, and welfare problems and cause social disorder.
Environmental violations are issued on a Civil Non-Traffic Complaint. If you receive a Civil Non-Traffic Complaint, you are entitled to a hearing as with any other civil charge if you chose to enter a plea of "not responsible". If you have been cited with more than ten charges arising out of the same incident, a pre-hearing disposition conference will be scheduled prior to the hearing to allow you the opportunity to meet with the Prosecutor to review the facts supporting the State's charges against you. During your hearing, a Prosecutor will be present to represent the State. The State presents its case first by calling witnesses to testify against you. You will be allowed to hear all the testimony against you and if you wish, after each witness has testified, you will have a turn to ask the witness questions, but you may only ask questions at this time.
After the State has presented its case, you may present your defense. You may call witnesses who have information concerning your incident to testify for you. You may testify on your own behalf. The Judge may ask you questions. You may present to the Court as evidence documents and other prepared exhibits that support your position. The Judge will rule on the testimony and other evidence presented based on a preponderance of the evidence, which means the State must prove that, more likely than not, you committed the violation.
IF YOU HAVE BEEN CHARGED WITH A CRIMINAL OFFENSE DO YOU NEED A LAWYER?
You must answer this question for yourself. You may either represent yourself or hire an attorney. If the Prosecutor's Office is seeking a sentence that includes a jail term, or if a statute authorizes a jury trial and you cannot afford an attorney, you may ask the Court to have a Court Appointed Attorney (CAA) represent you. If the Court is considering appointing an attorney for you, you will need to complete an application. An examination of your financial status will be made to determine whether or not you are entitled to the appointment of an attorney. You may be ordered to pay a portion of the attorney's cost, if one is appointed for you.
If you choose to defend yourself, please carefully consult the information given here regarding trial procedure and the proper way to present your case.
You should inform the Judge if you already have an attorney or plan to hire one, or if you are requesting that the Court appoint an attorney to represent you.
If you were given a complaint by an officer, the arraignment date will be the appearance date on your complaint. If you received a summons from the Court, either by mail or personal service, your arraignment date will be the court date indicated on your summons. You must appear in Court on the date and time indicated. Your failure to appear at any scheduled Court appearance could result in the issuance of a warrant for your arrest.
Under Arizona law, you can be brought to trial only after a formal complaint has been filed. The complaint is a document that states the criminal charge against you, and alleges that your action(s) were unlawful. A copy of the complaint against you may have been given to you by the officer when you were cited. If not, it will be given to you at your arraignment.
No testimony will be taken at arraignment and no witnesses will be present unless your case involved a "victim" who has asked to be present. The Judge at arraignment will not grant a defendant's request to dismiss any charges. Instead, you must decide upon a plea and enter your plea to the charge against you.
There are three possible pleas to a criminal charge:
- No Contest (nolo contendere)
- Not Guilty
Your decision on which plea to enter is one of the most important decisions you will have to make at your arraignment. You are encouraged to read the following explanations before entering your plea.
PLEA OF GUILTY A plea of "guilty" means that you admit that you committed the act charged in the complaint, that the act is prohibited by law, and that you have no legal defense for your act. If you wish to enter a plea of guilty, the Judge may first refer you to a Prosecutor to talk about a settlement offer (plea agreement) on your case before accepting your plea.
If you were involved in a traffic accident at the time of the alleged offense, your plea of guilty could be used later in a civil suit for damages as an admission by you relative to the question of fault.
PLEA OF NO CONTEST A plea of "no contest," also known as nolo contendere, means that you are not admitting or denying guilt. You are saying that you do not wish to contest the State's charge against you. Upon a plea of no contest, the Judge will impose a sentence as if you plead guilty.
If you enter a plea of no contest, you may be sentenced following the Judge's acceptance of your plea, or you may be sentenced at a later date.
PLEA OF NOT GUILTY A plea of "not guilty" means that you are informing the Court that you deny guilt and that the State (in the Phoenix Municipal Court, the State is represented by the City Prosecutor's Office) must prove the criminal charge against you. Under our American system of justice, all criminal defendants are presumed to be innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
If you plead not guilty, you must decide whether to hire an attorney or ask the Court to appoint one to represent you. You may represent yourself, but no one except you or your attorney may represent you at Court.
On a plea of not guilty, a pre-trial disposition conference (PDC) will be scheduled, and will be followed by a trial setting, if your case is not resolved at the PDC. At trial, the State will be required to present evidence to prove all charges against you beyond a reasonable doubt before there can be a finding of guilt.
For some types of offenses, diversion programs are offered by the City Prosecutor's Office, which provide an alternative to the normal trial process, and which may result in a dismissal of the criminal charge against you. If you are eligible for these programs, you will be given information and directions for enrollment at your arraignment.
PRE-TRIAL DISPOSITION CONFERENCE (PDC)
At the PDC, you or your attorney will have an opportunity to meet with a Prosecutor to review the facts supporting the State's criminal charges against you. At this time, you may review any written police reports and a list of any evidence that the State intends to use at the trial. Witnesses generally do not attend the PDC, and no testimony is taken. However, victims do have the right to be present.
You have three plea options at PDC:
- You may plead guilty and accept any settlement offer from the Prosecutor, which may contain a recommended sentence which you would receive upon acceptance of the offer;
- You may reject any offer by the Prosecutor and change your plea of not guilty to guilty or no contest, and then be subject to the sentence determined by the Judge;
- You can maintain your plea of not guilty and have the case assigned a date for trial. The trial may be heard by a Judge other than the one you have appeared before for the PDC.
Depending on the alleged offense, you may be entitled to a trial by jury. If you are not entitled to a jury trial, the trial will be heard and decided by a Judge.
You are entitled to hear all testimony and review all evidence introduced against you.
You have a right to cross-examine any witness who testifies against you. You have a right to testify on your own behalf. You also have a Constitutional right not to testify. If you choose not to testify, your refusal will not be used against you in determining your guilt or innocence. However, if you do choose to testify, the Prosecutor will have the right to cross-examine you and among other things, may inquire about any past criminal record or other information that may reflect upon your credibility as a witness.
You may call witnesses to testify on your behalf. You have the right to have the Court issue subpoenas for witnesses to ensure their appearance at trial. However, you must furnish the completed Court subpoena forms with the names and addresses of these witnesses to the Court well in advance of your trial so that the subpoenas can be properly served.
PRESENTING THE CASE
If you are represented by an attorney, the attorney will advise you regarding the presentation of your case. If you are not represented, you need to be aware of the following:
- The State will present its case first by calling witnesses to testify against you. A witness must testify under oath in order for the testimony to be considered. Written testimony is generally not admissible.
- After each prosecution witness has finished giving testimony, you will have the right to cross-examine the witness by asking him or her questions about their testimony. Your examination must be in the form of questions and you must not argue with the witness. Do not attempt to tell your side of the story at this time. You will have an opportunity to do so later.
- After the prosecution has presented its case, you may present your case, and call witnesses of your choosing.
- When it is time for you to present your case, you may testify on your own behalf, if you so desire.
- At the end of the trial, you will have an opportunity to summarize your case to the jury, or in a non-jury case, to the Judge. At that time, you may present any arguments that are based on the evidence presented during the trial.
- The judgment or verdict will be based on the facts and evidence presented during the trial.
The Judge's ruling will be based upon the testimony and facts presented at your hearing/trial. If you are found "Responsible" (Civil charge) or "Guilty" (Criminal charge), the Judge will indicate what your penalty will be. This penalty may be different from the amount listed on the traffic fine schedule given to you by the Police Officer. If your sentence includes a fine, payment in full is expected on the day of sentencing. Any fine imposed will include a State-mandated surcharge and a Court Technology Enhancement Fee will also be assessed.
The length of any jail sentence, and/or the amount of any fine, fee, or probation assessed by the Court are affected by the facts and circumstances of the case and your prior criminal record. Mitigating circumstances may lower the amount of jail, fine or probation, even if you are guilty. However, aggravating circumstances may also increase the amount of jail, fine or probation.
For some offenses such as Driving Under the Influence (DUI), or Extreme DUI, there are statutory minimum sentences which the Judge must impose. In no instance will sentences exceed the maximum levels of $2,500 fine plus State surcharges, and/or 6 months in jail and/or 3 years probation (5 years for DUI charges) for any one charge.
PAYMENT OF A MONETARY SENTENCE
When the Judge orders you to pay a fine, fee, and/or restitution, payment in full is expected on the day of the sentencing. Under certain circumstances you may be allowed additional time to pay fines or fees. If requesting time to pay, you will be referred to a Court Financial Enforcement Officer who will review your financial circumstances in order to determine if a payment contract and schedule for future payments is appropriate. If a payment contract is approved, you will be assessed a mandatory time payment fee.
Failure to comply with the payment schedule will subject you to further court proceedings and possible sanctions, including arrest, for non-compliance. Failure to pay the total balance due may also result in your account being referred to a collection agency, and your delinquent status reported to a credit bureau. If your delinquent account is referred to a collection agency, you will be required to pay a collection fee.
If your traffic charge is marked as a civil violation (other than parking) and you fail to enter a plea, fail to appear on any of your assigned court dates, or fail to comply with the Judge's sentencing requirements, a default judgment of responsible will be entered against you and a fine will be imposed. In addition to the fine amount, you will be assessed a state-mandated time payment fee and a default fee.
Additionally, the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division (MVD) will be notified that you are in default and MVD may suspend your privilege to drive in Arizona, which may also affect your driving status in other states. If your driver license is suspended as the result of a default, you will have to pay all amounts owed to the Court as well as an additional fee to MVD to have your license reinstated. If you drive while your license is suspended, you will be subject to serious criminal penalties and arrest, and may have your vehicle impounded. Failure to pay the total balance due may also result in your account being referred to a collection agency, and your delinquent status reported to a credit bureau. If your delinquent account is referred to a collection agency, you will be required to pay a collection fee.
If you fail to pay your parking charge, your vehicle may be booted, towed, and impounded. Additionally, your parking fine will be referred to a collection agency with collection costs to be assessed against you. If your traffic charge is marked as a criminal violation and you fail to appear on any of your assigned court dates, or fail to comply with the Judge's sentencing requirements, a warrant may be issued for your arrest.
You may be required to pay restitution for any damage or economic loss suffered by a victim. All restitution payments must be made to the Court for disbursement to the victim.
Any restitution payments made by third parties, including insurance companies, must be paid directly to the Court, or proof of payment must be provided to the Court in order for you to receive proper credit for the payment.
By law, you may appeal a final decision of the Court by filing a Notice of Appeal. The appeal must be filed in this Court within ten (10) days of the judgment of Responsible/Guilty against you. The Judge in your case will advise you of your appeal rights and may require you to post an appeal bond in order to stop the execution of the sentence imposed upon you.
An appeal is a legal process in which a higher court (Maricopa County Superior Court) reviews the decision of a lower court (Phoenix Municipal Court) based on the written transcript of the hearing. You will be responsible for the cost of duplicating the recording in order to advance your appeal. In most cases, an appeal is not a retrial of your case and you cannot present new evidence or testimony.
If you wish to pursue an appeal, you may contact the Phoenix Municipal Court Records Center (602-261-8566) for an information sheet, which provides more detailed information on the requirements and costs of filing an appeal.