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How Does The New York Town And Village Courts Work?

In the New York State Unified Court System, town and village courts are local courts with limited jurisdiction over certain civil and criminal matters. Otherwise known as justice courts, these courts are located across most towns and villages in New York outside New York City. These courts are informally referred to as the people’s courts, so-called because they have a broad authority over minor disputes arising between people and entities. These civil jurisdiction of the New York Town and Village Courts include:

  • Monetary claims in which the amount of the claim does not exceed $3,000
  • Eviction cases involving landlord-tenant matters
  • Small claims cases

On the other hand, the criminal jurisdiction of the justice courts extends to:

  • Misdemeanors and petty crimes
  • Violations of local ordinances such as zoning and
  • Arraignment and preliminary hearings for felony cases
  • Traffic-related matters (specifically those considered misdemeanors and infractions)
  • Summary contempt of court ( Judiciary Law § 750; UJCA § 210)

In addition to the civil and criminal jurisdiction, state laws furnished subject-matter jurisdiction to the justice courts in the following matters:

  • Proceedings involving destruction or secure confinement of dangerous dogs (Agriculture and Markets Law § 121)
  • Alleged offenses committed against the environment (Environmental Services Law 71–0513)
  • Special proceedings involving termination of admission agreements of adult home residents (Social Services Law § 461-h)
  • Cases alleging unlawful use of milk cans (General Business Law § 271)
  • In limited circumstances, proceedings pertaining to the commitment of persons with mental illnesses who appear to pose a danger to themselves or others (Mental Hygiene Law § 71–0507)
  • Solemnization of marriages (Domestic Relations Law § 11 (3))

The Town and Village Courts also issue orders of protection to domestic violence victims. Geographically speaking, each justice court’s criminal jurisdiction is restricted to cases occurring within the town’s or village’s territorial boundaries. Appeals from these courts go to the County Court.

The judicial procedures and rules governing the New York Town and Village Courts are the Uniform Civil Rules for the Justice Courts and the New York Criminal Procedure Law. Although they are subject to the state’s laws, the administrative arms of these courts are locally-sponsored, that is, they are not within the purview of the New York Office of Court Administration(OCA). As such, the court procedure and expected result of the case vary from one court to another. For instance, some courts dismiss contested traffic tickets if the ticketing officer does not appear in court on the scheduled date, while others adjourn the case to be heard at a later date. The police prosecute traffic tickets in some courts while it is the duty of an assistant district attorney or town or village attorney in other courts. In some jurisdictions, state troopers handle their tickets while town attorneys prosecute cases ticketed by town police.

Generally, the annual aggregate caseload of the Town Justice Courts and Village Justice Courts is approximately three million cases. However, some courts have more caseloads than others. It is worthy to note that the town and village courts are managed at the local level by the town or village government for which they are established.

Town and Village Justices are not necessarily lawyers and most of them are not. This is because the majority of these courts are in small towns and villages where none of the residents are attorneys. All non-attorney and attorney justices must complete at least 12 Continuing Judicial Education credits each year they remain in office.

The town justice position is filled by contested elections with a term of four years. To be eligible, the Justice must be a resident of the town except otherwise stipulated by law. The number of justices for each town justice court is prescribed in accordance with the New York Constitution, art VI, § 17 (d). Typically, the town law designates two justices per town court. However, towns with especially large caseloads are statutorily allowed to select a third or even fourth Justice. Subject to permissive referendum, the town board may reduce town courts with two justices to one justice.

The office of the Village Justice is an elective office; generally the Justice must be a resident of the village unless the village’s population is less than 3,000 and enacts a law allowing justices to reside anywhere within the county where the village is located. Suppose a village allows its Justice to live outside the village, the individual is still required to hold court sessions in the village and only those residing in the village may vote for their election (Village Law § 3–300 (2) (b). Each Village Court has either two justices or one justice and an acting justice. An Acting Village Justice is an auxiliary justice that only holds court when the Village Justice is absent or unable to serve or when requested by the Village Justice. The Acting Village Justice position is filled annually by Mayoral appointment and approval by the Board of Trustees.

Note that the Acting Village Justice does not automatically assume office when the Village Justice vacates office untimely. Instead, the Acting Village Justice serves until the position is filled by either the Mayor and Board of Trustees or the Chief Administrator of the Courts.

The length of time a case may take in the Justice court depends on the case type and proceedings arising from it. Typically, criminal cases take shorter time as they are subject to the New York Speedy Trial Rule.

New York Town and Village Justice Courts are not courts of record and not subject to the State Freedom of Information Law. Access to Justice Court records is governed by the UJCA § 2019 as well as rules promulgated by the Office of Court Administration (OCA). To view and inspect these records, interested parties are required to visit the particular Justice Court Clerk. Older case records are usually available with the Clerk of the Municipality in which the court of interest is located. Additional inquiries pertaining to record availability, fees, and acceptable payment methods may be obtained from the Find a Court Page provided on the New York Unified Court Website.

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