We are primarily concerned with the local courts: district court, city, town (justice court) and village court, because those are the courts that have jurisdiction to hear traffic ticket defense matters in New York State. But the appellate courts (county court, appellate term, appellate division, and Court of Appeals) are also significant because those courts determine the law within the various departments and throughout the State of New York. We will touch on the federal court system because traffic ticket defense matters do occasionally come within the jurisdiction of the United States Supreme Court, when one of the issues touches on US Constitutional law or violation of a federal statute.
First, the trial courts (all lower courts are trial courts) determine the facts in a given case and apply the law to that set of facts in a trial. There are jury trials and bench trials (judge trials). The fact finder, in a trial, can be either a judge or a jury. However, traffic ticket matters in New York State have no right to a jury trial, unless one of the charges is a crime. Most traffic tickets are not crimes.
After the fact finder has determined the facts of a case, the law is then applied to that set of facts to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant.
The vast majority of traffic ticket cases are disposed of by plea bargain without trial, which is encouraged in New York State. Some defendants are convicted after a trial and some cases are dismissed after an appropriate motion to the court.
If the people (prosecutor) or defendant appeals the case after conviction, he or she would appeal to the county court, appellate term, or appellate division, depending on which lower court the case originated in. If the people or defendant are unhappy with the outcome of the appeal, either party may have a basis to appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals, which is the highest Court of the State of New York.
If the case involves a violation of the US Constitution or a federal statute, the US Supreme Court may take an appeal. But this happens only on rare occasions.
The Court System in New York City is different than the rest of the State. Outside of New York City the lower courts are the local district courts, city courts, town courts and village courts. Village courts have jurisdiction over traffic ticket matters that occur within the geographical limits of the village. And city, town and district courts have jurisdiction over traffic ticket matters that occur in the geographical limits of that municipal entity.
On the appellate level, we have the appellate term, appellate division and the NYS Court of Appeals, although the county court does have some jurisdiction over appeals, even though its primary function is that of a trial court.
The appellate term only exists in the 1st and 2nd Department. We have four appellate divisions in New York State each divided into departments. The appellate term and appellate division only define the law in their individual departments. The law in the First Department may be different than the law in the Second Department or other departments. But the NYS Court of Appeals is the law throughout the entire State of New York. Similarly, the United States Supreme Court, the highest Court in the land, is the law throughout the entire United States. There is only one US Supreme Court which is in Washington, DC.
In New York City traffic ticket defense matters are heard by the Traffic Violations Bureau (TVB), which is an administrative tribunal, not a court of law. If any of the charges is a crime, then the matter is heard by the New York City Criminal Court, not the TVB.
Other than small claims court, the lowest courts in the New York City are the New York City Civil Court and New York City Criminal Court. The NYC Civil Court hears all civil matters that are above the jurisdictional money limits of the small claims court. NYC Criminal Court hears traffic ticket matters that involves a crime, as well as all other criminal matters that are not felonies. While the felonies, for the most part, start out in the NYC Criminal Courts, once the grand jury votes a true bill, and indicts the defendant on a felony, the matter is then transferred to the New York State Supreme Court, Criminal Division, where prosecution and trial takes place.
While felonies are prosecuted in the Supreme Court, Criminal Division in New York City; outside New York City felonies are prosecuted in the County Courts.
Felonies are crimes that are punishable by more than one year in jail. Misdemeanors are crimes that are punishable by less than one year in jail. Another category of offense is a violation, other than a “traffic infraction,” for which a sentence to a term of imprisonment in excess of fifteen days cannot be imposed. Conviction of a violation is not a crime and that conviction does not result in a criminal conviction.
The appellate system in New York is divided into four separate parts. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court 1st Department, 2nd Department, 3rd Department, and 4th Department. The First Department consists of the Bronx and New York Counties. The Second Department consists of Dutchess, Kings, Nassau, Orange, Putnam, Queens, Richmond, Rockland, Suffolk and Westchester Counties. North of Dutchess County, starting with Columbia County, the Third Department begins and continues upstate. The Fourth Department is, essentially, those counties in the Northwest section of New York State.
The cases decided by each department reflect the law in that department. Sometimes there are conflicts between departments, so if the case that you have in hand is from the 4th department, it may not be consistent with the law in the Second Department, if that is where you are located. So, if you are defending a case from the Second Department, you should obtain case law from the Second Department, the Court of Appeals, or the United States Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court is the law throughout the United States. The NYS Court of Appeals is the law throughout the State of New York. And case law from the department where you are located is the law applicable to that department. So, case law from those courts would be the precedent and the lower courts would be obligated to follow that precedent. If you can only find case law outside your department, that may be considered persuasive authority (if no conflicting law exists), but the court is not obligated to follow that law.
Some appeals from local courts will go to the county court (outside New York City), some go to the appellate term, and some go to the appellate division, depending on where you are located and what court you are appealing from. The Appellate Term hears and decides appeals from the Civil and Criminal Courts of the City of New York for New York and Bronx Counties. But the appellate term only exists in the First and Second Departments of New York State.
The county court is generally a trial court, with limited appellate jurisdiction. Trial courts determine the facts and applicable law of a case. Appellate courts generally do not decide facts, they decide if the correct law was applied to a set of facts.
The New York State Supreme Court has a branch in each of 62 counties in New York State. The NYS Supreme Court should not be confused with the US Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the United States. The NYS Supreme Court is the highest trial level court for civil cases. It is also the court of general jurisdiction and unlimited original jurisdiction. But it generally hears cases that are outside the jurisdiction of other trial courts of more limited jurisdiction.
In New York City, the NYS Supreme Court exercises jurisdiction over civil matters and criminal felony matters. Outside New York City, the Supreme Court only exercises jurisdiction over civil matters.
Appeals from the New York Supreme Court, typically, go to the appellate division in that department. If a further appeal is taken, it would go to the New York State Court of Appeals, which is the highest Court in the State of New York and the Court of last resort, in most cases.
The New York State Court of Appeals focuses on broad issues of law, as opposed to factual disputes. The facts are determined in the courts below, and when a significant legal issue arises, the Court of Appeals decides the law on the pre-determined facts.
The United States Supreme Court may hear appeals from the NYS Court of Appeals which involve issues of US Constitutional Law and violation of federal statutes, but those appeals are few and far between.
One recent case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court arising out of the operation of a motor vehicle focused on the Fourth Amendment right to privacy of a driver of a leased vehicle who is not listed as an authorized driver in the rental papers. Although not listed in the rental agreement, such drivers do have privacy rights which protects them from unreasonable search and seizures, according to the Byrd case decided in 2018.
There are also other courts in New York State which have limited jurisdiction in New York State: the NYS Court of Claims, the Surrogate Court, and the Family Court. The Court of claims hears only cases against the State of New York. The Surrogate’s Court has jurisdiction over wills and estate issues. The Family Court has jurisdiction over family related matters such as adoption, custody and support matters.
In summary, if you are defending a traffic ticket in local court, you need to know the authority of case law opinions from various courts. So, if you have a case form the US Supreme Court, and it is on point with the issue in your case, the law of that case must be followed by all courts in the United States. If you have a case from the New York State Court of Appeals, the law reflected in that opinion must be followed by all courts in the State of New York. If you have a case from the Second Department and your case is in the Second Department, the local court must follow that law. If the opinion you have located is from the appellate term in the jurisdiction where you are located, the local court in that jurisdiction must follow that case law. If you have case law from the county court in the county where your case is pending, the local court must follow that law. If you are in local court representing yourself, and you plan to rely on a case law to defend yourself, it is highly advisable to have a copy of that case law in hand, to show the judge, when you appear in court.