Municipal Court: Taking Control of Ordinance Enforcement

Municipal Law Alert, October 2009

Municipal courts are specially-created by towns, villages or cities to hear ordinance violation cases. If a municipality does not have a municipal court, an ordinance violation, such as a citation issued by a municipal police officer, will be prosecuted in circuit court in the county in which the municipality is located. According to the Wisconsin Court System website, as of May 2008, there were 252 municipal courts and 254 municipal judges in Wisconsin. Milwaukee has the largest municipal court, with three full-time judges and three part-time court commissioners handling more than 240,000 cases annually.

In Wisconsin, cases commonly heard by municipal courts are first-time Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) offenses. Wisconsin is the only state where a first offense OWI is an ordinance violation, not a criminal offense. Other frequently-heard cases are juvenile matters, such as truancy, underage drinking, drug offenses and curfew violations. In fact, municipal courts handle a significant portion of the statewide court caseload in these areas. Thus, municipal courts are an important part of the overall court system in Wisconsin, relieving the burden that would otherwise fall on circuit courts.

Creating municipal courts

A municipality’s authority to create a municipal court is statutory: “[A municipal] court shall become operative and function when the city council, town board or village board adopts an ordinance or bylaw providing for the election of a judge and the operation and maintenance of a court.” Wis. Stat. § 755.01(1).

A municipality may create its own court system or may join another neighboring municipality to form one court. If multiple municipalities choose to create one court, there are special rules. First, the contracting municipalities need not be contiguous or in the same county. Second, the municipalities joining to form one court must enact identical ordinances. Wis. Stat. § 755.01(4). Finally, one municipality may contract with another municipality for services for the joint exercise of power to enforce the ordinances of the municipality. Wis. Stat. § 66.0303.

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