The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Tennessee County Municipal Advisory Service

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Definitions of Ordinance and Penalties

Reference Number: MTAS-302
Tennessee Code Annotated
Reviewed Date: September 24, 2016
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Definition of Ordinance
Any city ordinance passed by the local governing body is binding upon the community, but it is not a “law” in the legal sense. Municipal courts have long been considered “civil” courts rather than “criminal” courts. Unless a municipal court has concurrent general sessions criminal jurisdiction, only ordinance violations can be heard in municipal court.

Municipalities are authorized to adopt ordinances that mirror, substantially duplicate, or reference certain state laws for offenses that are Class C misdemeanors. The penalty for violating the ordinance cannot exceed $50 and the municipal court cannot order imprisonment. Many cities have older ordinances in their codes that cannot be enforced, as the state offenses mirrored are not Class C misdemeanors.

Cities having a population of more than 150,000 may also adopt state laws for driving without a valid driver’s license, reckless driving, and adult underage purchasing or possession of alcoholic beverages. Smaller cities may no longer enforce ordinances adopting such offenses, as they are Class A and B misdemeanors under state law.

Mirroring a state law means that the ordinance reads exactly the same as the state law, and “substantially duplicating” means that the ordinance contains the same general language or intent. Adopting a state statute by reference allows the city to pass an ordinance adopting a specific state statute by referencing the “citation” number of the statute. While the full content of the state statute would be in the ordinance, any future changes in the state law would automatically be included in the ordinance.

MTAS recommends that cities specifically name the violation being adopted by reference. While a city could pass an ordinance that adopts a statute by mentioning the statute citation, it is much clearer to cite the statute and the name of the offense. For instance, the ordinance could cite the state statute number for the financial responsibility law, but MTAS recommends the adopting ordinance also include the name “Financial Responsibility Law.”

Definition of Penalties
The Tennessee constitution provides that no fine shall exceed $50 unless it is assessed by a jury. Municipal courts do not have statutory authority to hold jury trials. The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that the constitutional limitation on fines applies to penalties for municipal ordinance violations that are punitive in nature, rather than remedial as referenced in City of Chattanooga v. Davis and Barrett v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, 54 S.W.3d 248 (Tenn. 2001). In the Davis opinion, the court describes briefly the requirements that must be met in order to qualify a fine as remedial. These requirements include providing a detailed statement of expenses incurred by the city due to the individual offense cited. The court admits that it is difficult for cities to make the distinction between remedial and punitive fines. It has been recommended that all penalties for municipal ordinance violations be limited to $50, pending further direction from the courts.

A violation of a municipal ordinance in and of itself cannot be punished by incarceration, since penalties for violations of municipal ordinances are civil in nature as seen in Bristol v. Burrow, 73 Tenn. 128 (1880); Deitch v. Chattanooga, 195 Tenn. 245, 258 S.W.2d 776 (1953); Memphis v. Smthye, 104 Tenn. 702, 58 S.W. 215 (1900); Guidi v. Memphis, 196 Tenn 13, 263 S.W.2d 532 (1953); City of Chattanooga v. Myers, 787 S.W.2d 921, 922 (Tenn. 1990).

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