The primary function of municipal courts is to try minor criminal offenses. Because of the heavy volume of cases, and since the cases tried are of a less serious nature, proceedings are generally less formal than in higher Texas trial courts. To expedite the process, court clerks or bailiffs often participate in the plea-taking process.
In recent years, criticism has been leveled at the lack of formality in some municipal courts. Although cases are expedited and defendants are made to feel more comfortable, sometimes important constitutional rights, such as the right to be fully notified of the changes, are hampered. Critics also point to the lack of respect for the court and the confusion concerning general courtroom procedures created by informal process. Fortunately, the use of computers and the institution of better selection procedures and training programs for judges and court personnel have vastly improved the quality of justice in many municipal courts.
Class C Misdemeanors
Criminal jurisdiction is limited to Class C misdemeanors and violations of city ordinances. Class C misdemeanors are minor criminal offenses for which the maximum punishment is a $500 fine, exclusive of penalty, interest, and court costs. A Class C misdemeanor does not include jail time, but punishment may include revocation of privileges, such as a driver's license or permit. A Class C is the least serious criminal offense under Texas law. This includes disorderly conduct, driving without a license and public intoxication. The jurisdiction of municipal courts over Class C misdemeanors is not exclusive. Justice of the peace courts have jurisdiction over most Class C misdemeanors that arise within the city. Theoretically, a traffic violator who runs a red light in Dallas could be tried either in the Dallas municipal court or in a justice of the peace court within Dallas County.
In actual practice, however, most Class C misdemeanors in urban areas are tried in municipal court. Justice of the peace courts try those Class C misdemeanors occurring in unincorporated areas of the county or occurring on state-controlled roads and highways.
Municipal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over violations of municipal penal ordinances. A city has the power to enact laws within its jurisdiction. These laws, when passed by the majority of the governing body (city council or city commission) are called ordinances. Some of these ordinances are penal in nature, that is, they carry a punishment in the form of a fine for their violation. For example, an ordinance that requires homeowners to maintain covers on their trash cans or face a fine is a penal ordinance.
In regards to permits and licences, municipal courts also have jurisdiction to suspend or revoke them. Common examples include revoking a driver's license and revoking liquor licenses.