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Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS)

Original Author: Huffer, Dennis
Date of Material: 02/15/2005

Municipal ordinances

Ordinance Violation and Appeal as a Civil Rather Than Criminal Proceeding

Reviewed Date: 07/28/2021
MTAS was asked whether an appeal of an ordinance violation to circuit court by the defendant would be considered a civil or criminal matter.

February 15, 2005

Re: Ordinance violation and appeal as a civil rather than criminal proceeding

Dear City Attorney:

You asked my opinion on whether an appeal of an ordinance violation to circuit court by the defendant would be considered a civil or criminal matter. The defendant’s attorney in a case is uncomfortable with such “criminal prosecution” matters also being included in what is otherwise a civil matter involving an injunction to prohibit further ordinance violations. In my opinion the ordinance violation and appeal are civil matters. The maximum fine for an ordinance violation is fifty dollars ($50.00) when the fine is assessed for punitive, rather than remedial, purposes. Town of Nolensville v. King, 151 S.W.3d 427 (Tenn. 2004); City of Chattanooga v. Davis, 54 S.W.3d 248 (Tenn. 2001). The fine in your situation appears to be clearly punitive. Therefore the city should not try to enforce any penalty greater than the $50.00 fine in this case. You should note, however, that under the Nolensville case, the fine can be levied for each day of a violation.

T.C.A. § 27-5-101 and 102 provide for appeals from city courts to the circuit court. Section 16-18-307, enacted as part of the Municipal Court Reform Act of 2004, attempts to clarify this. Ordinance violations and their appeals are generally considered civil in nature. For example, in City of Murfreesboro v. Bowles, 213 S.W.2d 35 (Tenn. 1948), the court upholds the appeal of a fine for an ordinance violation to circuit court, denominating it a civil proceeding as for debt.

Tennessee has long recognized that ordinance violations generally are not criminal in nature. Even though ordinances use the word “misdemeanor” to describe a violation, that term does not mean the same as it does in state statutes. And the appeal is handled as the appeal of a civil matter. In O’Haver v. Montgomery, 111 S.W. 449 (Tenn. 1908), a case involving a requirement that abutting owners build sidewalks, the court states the distinction:

The word “misdemeanor,” as employed in statutes conferring power upon municipal corporations, is not wholly synonymous with the same term as used at common law, or in general statutes defining offenses against the state of a grade less than felony, but has a more restricted meaning, being limited to offenses against the smaller local government. 111 S.W. at 449.

The court goes on to explain that although courts sometimes characterize ordinance violations as partly criminal and partly civil in nature:
When we characterize the action as being of a criminal nature, we do not mean to be understood as using the term wholly in the sense in which it is applicable to actions brought by the state in the form of indictments and presentments for violations of the criminal laws of the state, but rather by analogy, and for want of a better term. 111 S.W. at 451.

Relative to the appeal of the ordinance violation, the court says:

[T]he right of appeal may be given, and generally is given, and, if exercised, the municipality appears in another jurisdiction; that is, in the courts of the state, as a suitor to recover the penalty which it has assessed against the violator of its laws. But the larger court, while trying the controversy as a civil suit, will see to it that the municipality, if successful, shall have there the same sanctions for the enforcement of its laws as if the trial had terminated in the municipal court. 111 S.W. at 451, 452.

Two (2) other cases that are often cited for the proposition that ordinance prosecutions are civil proceedings are Guidi v. City of Memphis, 263 S.W.2d 532 (Tenn. 1953) and City of Chattanooga v. Myers, 787 S.W.2d 921 (Tenn. 1990). Guidi involved a speed limit infraction that was an ordinance violation. The court agreed with the prevailing view that prosecutions for ordinance violations are civil and held that a warrant for the ordinance violation was considered only civil process. Myers involved an appeal from an ordinance violation. The court held that:

An appeal for the violation of a municipal ordinance is a civil action, triable de novo in the circuit court in precisely the same manner and under the same procedural rules as those governing tort actions instituted in General Sessions Courts, to include the right to a jury trial. 787 S.W.2d at 922.

O’Dell v. City of Knoxville, 379 S.W.2d 756 (Tenn. 1963), is also cited for the proposition that ordinance violations are civil proceedings. Itis the case that held that a fine for an ordinance violation could be more than $50.00 because it was really a civil penalty rather than an fine under Article VI, § 14 of the state constitution. O’Dell has been overruled on that point by Davis v. City of Chattanooga cited above, but it should still be good law on the point that ordinance violations are civil. The ruling in Davis does not require that ordinance violations be viewed as criminal sanctions. Rather, the court drew a distinction between punitive measures and remedial sanctions, with both viewed as civil fines. For punitive fines, a jury trial would be required for a fine greater than $50.00. For remedial fines, no jury trial would be required. But nowhere does the court even hint that from henceforth fines for ordinance violations would be considered criminal sanctions. Indeed, the court states:

Since our decision in City of Chattanooga v. Myers [citation omitted], the law now appears settled that proceedings for a municipal ordinance violation are civil in nature, at least in terms of technical application of proceedings and for pursuing avenues of appeal. 54 S.W.3d at 259.

Further, the court notes that the notion of punishment is not confined to criminal law, but also cuts across civil law.

The one area in which an ordinance violation is treated the same as a criminal violation in the true sense of the word “criminal” is in double jeopardy jurisprudence. And some over-expansive language in Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County v. Miles, 524 S.W.2d 656 (Tenn. 1975), might be confusing your defendant’s attorney. This case, which held that the government cannot appeal the acquittal of an ordinance violation because to do so would amount to double jeopardy under both the federal and state constitutions, contains this language:

[A] proceeding in a municipal court for the imposition of a fine upon a person for allegedly violating a city ordinance is criminal rather than civil in substance, in that it seeks punishment to vindicate public justice and, therefore, constitutes jeopardy under the double jeopardy clauses of the Tennessee and Federal Constitutions ... . 524 S.W.2d at 660.

In a later case that same year, however, the court repents of this language, saying it was overly broad. In Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County v. Allen, 529 S.W.2d 699 (Tenn. 1975), the court says:

More precise language – and language more in keeping with the thrust of our principal holding in Miles, which we reiterate – would have been:

These cases are not authority for the proposition that an appeal may follow an acquittal, after a trial on the merits in a case involving violation of a city ordinance. 529 S.W.2d at 707.

The court goes on to clarify that “Procedurally, cases involving violation of city ordinances continue to be civil in nature. [citations omitted] They are in the nature of an action in debt. [citation omitted] They are not criminal prosecutions, but are merely penal actions having as their object the vindication of domestic regulations.” [citation omitted] 529 S.W.2d at 707.

Finally, relative to the appeal of an ordinance violation, the court foreshadows language from Myers:

An appeal for the violation of an ordinance is a civil action, triable De novo in the circuit court in precisely the same manner and under the same procedural rules as those governing tort actions instituted in the General Sessions Courts, to include the right to a jury trial. But, as held in Miles, the rules of double jeopardy apply to preclude an appeal from a judgment of acquittal. This seemingly incongruous result is mandated by the holding of the Supreme Court of the United States in Waller v. Florida, 397 U.S. 387, 90 S. Ct. 1184, 25 L. Ed.2d 435 (1970), and is supported by other cases cited in Miles. 529 S.W.2d at 707.

The Waller case held that a person convicted of the city ordinance violations of destruction of city property and breach of the peace could not later be tried by the state for grand larceny based upon the same facts that led to the ordinance convictions.

The conclusion appears to be that ordinance violations and appeals are treated the same as criminal matters only in the narrow area of double jeopardy. In every other respect, they are civil. Language in cases referring to them as criminal or quasi-criminal is, by the courts’ admission, merely by way of analogy or for want of any better comparison. The circuit court in your case should be able to require the defendant, if found guilty, to do the same things the municipal court could have required.

I hope this is helpful. If you have questions, please let me know.


Dennis Huffer
Legal Consultant

Main Document(s):
file Ordinance Violation and Appeal public.doc