A practical Study Project for Criminal Justice Students

How much do you know about your local court system?

Unless you’re a student returning to school after raising a family or being in the work world (or both) and along the course of your lifetime you’ve had some occasions of involvement with the court system, odds are the answer is “not enough.”

The next question would be: do you know how many local ‘courts’ you have? If you have less than a fundamental grasp of the w working of the overall court system, you probably don’t even know that.

The next question in many locales would be: in terms of your court system, how would you define “local.” This third question doesn’t apply to places like Arizona, Texas, and Oklahoma where the same court jurisdiction is likely to cover a fairly large geographical area.

What I’m proposing, here, is that you engage in a self-defined firsthand study project to acquaint yourself . . . as a criminal justice student . . . with the nature of your local court system.

The lynchpin of the criminal justice system is the court system. The courts, however, don’t serve only the requirements of criminal matters. Much of what comes before any court on any given day involves civil matters. However, civil matters and criminal matters can be closely associated in given cases. Here’s an example I recently ran across. For the most part, landlord-tenant matters are a civil matter. Because of that, some police departments won’t respond if a tenant calls about a threatened illegal lockout or even an actual lockout. Yet . . . as the excellent online law library in my state identifies, appropriate landlord right-of-entry is quite strictly defined in the law. While the law does allow such things as entry for purposes of updating alarms in disabled or elderly housing as well as emergency or appearance of an abandoned unit in any tenancy, a landlord cannot enter just at whim and the regulations are quite stringent. To even enter the apartment or other tenant unit for the purpose of illegally changing a lock constitutes criminal trespass. And because it does constitute criminal trespass, police indeed should respond to a tenant complaint and obtain access for the locked-out tenant unless and until the landlord has obtained court approval for eviction under a legally executed eviction process. Associated civil and criminal matters involving the same parties may by a court be handled either simultaneously or separately depending on how close or how distant the association, and-or on whether the civil charges are already known at the time of the criminal proceeding. Often, the bringing of particular civil charges does not become a factor until the outcome of the criminal trial is known.

As mentioned, the court system is the lynchpin of the criminal justice system. In turn, the district court is the lynchpin of the court system. Most likely, you have a certain number of courthouses in your local area. But you probably have a greater number of what the system refers to as “courts” that operate in your local area than you do courthouse buildings. Some deal with mostly criminal and some mostly civil matters. What the overall system in this case means by the term ‘court’ is essentially a specialized division of the court that deals with specific matters. Not uncommonly, two or more such divisions of the court system operate out of the same courthouse building. But in terms of your local court system, you are likely somewhere to find all (and possibly more) of the following: one or more general district counts (mine has four or more if I correctly recall), juvenile court, family court, housing court, probate court, the court that deals in matters of real estate purchase and sale the name of which escapes me, superior court, and likely a supreme judicial court. Those are at the state level, and you may also have one or more federal courts operating in your local area.

Early in the article, I posed the question with regard to defining your local area. As someone who, one presumes, anticipates a future career in criminal justice, this also has importance for you to know. Procedurally, court systems run under protocols established at the state level. Bur jurisdiction-wise, courts typically operate in terms of the county system of geographical jurisdiction. In small-to-moderate sized states, this may mean that some of the courts in neighboring counties are likely to be geographically closer to you than are some same-county courts in to-you outlying areas of the county. In criminal justice careers, you may be called on to attend court in association with some of your cases in two or more counties. For example, I live in Massachusetts and were I to go into a criminal justice career, based on where I now live at the very least I could potentially expect to be called to attend court in association with cases in at least four counties: Essex, Middlesex, Suffolk, and Worcester. Indeed, the superior court in the neighboring county of Middlesex is geographically closer than the superior court for the county in which I presently reside, which is Essex.

If I have any crossover readers from the paralegal/legal disciplines, attorneys in private practice can typically practice in any county in any state(s) in which they hold licensing. However, If you for example sign on as a staff attorney for a social services agency, your employment terms will likely restrict you to provide representation in court only in the territory in which the agency holds jurisdiction which is likely to remain within the limits of a single county and may not even encompass the entirety of that county.

In addition to these aspects of the court system there are other functional arms of the system that operate out of the court buildings but aren’t true ‘courts’. These include such departments as probation, the registry of deeds, the grand jury session, and possibly others.

Finally, there is the term ‘court’ as applied to a functional aspect or mode of operation. Getting to this as a kind of primer to the proposed practical study relates to the need to have outlined, in general, the overall court system.

A closed court session is one where for whatever reason or reasons the presiding court has elected to admit to the courtroom only parties directly involved . . . although “directly involved” typically extends to family and friends of both plaintiffs and defendants in the case. An open court session is a session in which the presiding court has elected to admit anyone of the general public who wishes to attend so long as the individual ‘member of the public’ neither interferes with nor disrupts court proceedings and up until such time as the courtroom reaches attendance capacity.

My proposed practical study project for you here . . . which you should indeed be able to use observations and experiences from in future formal academic projects . . . is for you to first identify your local area and determine how many counties that encompasses segments of. Fifty miles makes a good working radius in most locales. Once you’ve done that, contact at least one but if possible several courts in your local area to find out about open court sessions. Most general courthouses at district and superior court levels will have some open court sessions almost any court day. Family and juvenile courts tend to be more protective of the parties directly involved. Housing courts simply may lack the room to admit the general public, as is also often true in family and juvenile court settings. A recommended set of observations for your study project would be to observe a full day of open court sessions each in district and superior court of matters that go before a judge but no jury; and, if you live in an area where segments of two or more counties fall within that 50 mile radius to repeat that same protocol in a second county. Additionally, try also to sit in on at least one open court session jury trial at the district court level. Here I recommend district court level because a jury trial at superior court level or higher is likely to extend for a longer time; sometimes several days.

In my experience, anyone with less exposure than this to the functioning of the court system is ill-equipped for a criminal justice career.

Am I a criminal justice professional? No. Sociology was my Minor as an undergraduate and that included courses in the criminal justice discipline. But I’ve had civilian involvement with the courts in relation to real estate transaction, landlord-tenant matters, empanelment on two juries, serving in additional jury pools that did not result in empanelment, and action against an estate. And I continually meet people in the general public whose ignorance of the functioning of the court system appalls me. The latest being someone preparing indigency paperwork who until I corrected the idea believed that if she showed up at family court when the courthouse opened at 8:30 a.m. she could get an immediate sign off on paper work and be at work by 9:30 a.m. (Ahm. No, dear. Court is PROCESS. The odds are good your application won’t get heard until afternoon.) She also appeared to believe, since she was consulting by cell phone with someone on the answers, that the person on whose behalf the application was made didn’t need to go to court. That’s also not the case. In the event of questions, the judge will want the actual applicant his or herself present to clarify.

As a civilian with some training and some practical exposure, therefore . . . including the fact that I found my own most recent court attendance intriguing in terms of the case before the court immediately before consideration of the matter about which I attended, I consider this kind of practical observation of a range of open court proceedings a fundamental primer for someone aspiring to a criminal justice career.



Photo: courthouse, Slideshow Bruce



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Christine Lebednik

Christine Lebednik

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