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Penalties for Violations of Municipal Ordinance

Reference Number: MTAS-94
Reviewed Date: 12/20/2021

A fine for a municipal ordinance violation may not exceed $50 unless the fine is "remedial." See City of Chattanooga v. Davis and Barrett v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, 54 S.W. 3rd. 248 (Tenn. 2001). Examples of fines that are remedial include those that recover administrative expenses, disgorge ill-gotten gains, provide restitution, or are prospectively coercive. Home rule municipalities may recover actual administrative expenses incurred to enforce ordinances that prohibit false threats or hoaxes involving biological weapons, destructive devices, or weapons of mass destruction. T.C.A. § 6-54-306.

It is questionable whether any municipal court in Tennessee may impose jail sentences for municipal ordinance violations. The only exception may be the willful non-payment of a fine for an ordinance violation. An indigent person may not be jailed simply for non-payment of penalties. See, Tenn.Op.Atty.Gen 06-135 (8/21/06), 2006 WL 2929088; T.C.A. § 40-24-104; Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395, 28 L.Ed. 2d 130 (1971)(equal protection discussion relative to nonpayment of a fine).

T.C.A. § 29-9-108 makes failure to appear without just cause a contempt of court offense punishable by a $10 fine and up to five days imprisonment. However, this statute applies only to municipal courts with a metropolitan form of government, general sessions courts that also hear violations of municipal ordinances, and city courts that exercise jurisdiction over certain environmental cases in cities in Shelby County. In the latter instance, the defendant also may be punished for contempt of court for failure to correct a violation of the municipal code relating to health, housing, fire, or building and zoning codes.