Texas law divides criminal offenses into misdemeanors and felonies. Texas law also divides the criminal courts in different ways to handle these different cases. There is not much of a difference between county court and district court, but there is a huge difference between Justice of the Peace court and the other two.
In order to better understand these differences, let’s take a hypothetical look at Dan Defendant. One dark and stormy night, a Weatherford police officer pulled over Dan because he was driving erratically. Depending on the evidence which the officer sees and Dan’s criminal background, the subsequent criminal case could end up in either district, county, or JP court.
JP court is a lot like Judge Judy or, for old-timers, The People’s Court. A judge hears both sides of the story and then delivers a judgement right there on the spot. Most of the formal rules of evidence do not apply in JP court. For that reason, a Justice of the Peace need not even be a lawyer. In fact, in 1990, Collin County voters sent John Payton, who was then an 18-year-old high school student, to the bench in Precinct 3.
Municipal prosecutors usually handle speeding ticket and other traffic infractions. An Assistant County Attorney usually handles other Class C misdemeanors. Let’s assume that the officer who pulled Dan over didn’t have enough evidence to perform field tests or make a DWI arrest, but he did see an open bottle of beer in the back seat. Possession of an open container, even if the bottle is almost empty and in the back seat, is a Class C misdemeanor.
In Parker County, County Courts at Law 1 and 2 handle most Class A and B misdemeanors, along with most Class C appeals. In county court, the Texas rules of evidence apply. So, in both county court and district court, unless you have an attorney, you are almost certain to lose your case. Furthermore, since jail time is a possibility, a county court judge usually either assigns a court-appointed attorney or a public defender to indigent defendants who cannot make bail.
If Dan was arrested for DWI and he had one or no prior convictions, the case would be a misdemeanor. These cases are sometimes difficult to defend in Parker County. Some courts have a closed-file policy which limits discovery. Furthermore, some courts have a no-dismissal policy when it comes to DWIs. No matter how weak the evidence is, the prosecutor will never dismiss the case or allow a plea to a lesser included offense, like reckless driving.
The District Attorney handles district court cases. A third or subsequent DWI is usually a felony. The same rules of evidence and procedure apply in both county and district court. The difference is usually one of degree. Felonies are more serious than misdemeanors, because felonies mean prison time as opposed to jail time. For that reason, district courts are usually better staffed, and the Assistant District Attorney is usually quite experienced.
There are three levels of criminal court, and an attorney plays a valuable role in each one. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Weatherford, contact Herreth Law. We routinely handle cases in Parker County and nearby jurisdictions.