21 July 2020

Decriminalizing Local Ordinances

The vast majority of counties and municipalities have a code of ordinances that provide that all ordinance violations not otherwise provided for are punishable by a term of imprisonment and/or a fine typically comparable to a serious misdemeanor offense under state law.

Most ordinances involve conduct that shouldn't be punishable by incarceration, such as not having a proper setback, or not mowing your lawn, that homeowner's associations manage to enforce just fine without having the power to pass incarceration punishable rules.

A state initiative could solve that problem. It would read roughly as follows:
No local government statute, ordinance, regulation, or enactment which is not punishable by incarceration under state law shall be punishable by incarceration, and no sentence of incarceration for a local government statute, ordinance, regulation, or enactment which is punishable by incarceration under state law shall have a maximum sentence of incarceration greater than that available under state law.
I would also love to see a study thoroughly examining the reality of sentences imposed under local government ordinances upon convictions for violations of them. 

A strongly suspect that almost all such sentences are fines only, fines and a probation (sometimes with community service required), a sentence to time services for a short pre-first appearance period of incarceration in jail (mostly but not entirely for offenses which are also crimes under state law), or a sentence of incarcerations much shorter than the one available under the ordinance as a maximum punishment (mostly for something that is also punishable under state law). 

I also strongly suspect that in the uncommon cases where sentences of incarceration are not minimal relative to the maximum allowed punishment, that the sentences are for offenses which are also state law crimes that could be punished equally severely or more severely under state law. 

Thus, in most cases, in the outlier cases where incarceration is imposed for ordinance violations, these are aberrant abuses of discretion even if there is not a legal right to appeal them as excessive.

An alternative would be to prohibit local governments from passing ordinances without incarceration as a possible sanction. But in practice, local governments often pass ordinances that duplicate state offenses so that they can use the fines imposes for their own revenues to fund the enforcement of those ordinances that they conduct, and so that they can give defendants a less serious and widely searchable criminal record.

For the most part, local governments other than municipalities and counties either lack the power to enact ordinances and regulations punishable by incarceration, or never exercise that power.

Honestly, I'm not a fan of allowing municipal courts to impose sentences of incarceration at all, and would prefer to abolish all municipal courts and require them to use the state court system (county courts and district courts, in Colorado) to enforce their legal rights instead, and the power of Colorado's municipal courts is strictly limited and regulated as it is, but that is a fight for another day.

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