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Cities and municipalities do not pass statutes; they enact ordinances. Ordinances are municipal laws that have force and effect only within the boundaries of the city where they were enacted.

EXAMPLE: Cities commonly enact zoning ordinances. An ordinance may prohibit retail businesses in a certain neighborhood in the city. However, because the ordinance applies only within the city, a business across the street from the neighborhood is perfectly legal if it is outside the city limits.

The primary function of city ordinances is to prohibit certain actions that put the public’s health, safety and welfare at risk. When an ordinance is violated, a city attorney handles the prosecution in municipal court. Some offenses addressed by city ordinances include:

  • unlawful possession of alcohol by minors
  • possession or purchase of tobacco products by minors
  • prohibition of smoking in specified public areas and places
  • possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia
  • retail theft or shoplifting
  • criminal trespass to land
  • curfews for minors
  • disorderly conduct
  • cruelty to animals
  • truancy
  • noise

Additionally, cities enact ordinances concerning building safety. These ordinances are part of city building codes, fire codes, plumbing and electrical codes.

If I violate a city ordinance, have I committed a crime?

No. Only violations of state criminal statutes are "crimes." Violating a criminal ordinance is considered a "quasi-criminal" violation, or a civil infraction.

SIDEBAR: The distinction is important because persons accused of a crime are typically afforded more rights than someone who violated an ordinance. For example, to prove you violated the disorderly conduct ordinance, the city attorney’s burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not you were disorderly) versus the much higher "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard that is required in criminal trials.

Can I go to jail for violating a city ordinance?

Yes. Violations of some ordinances could result in jail time, a monetary fine or both.

Can an attorney represent me in municipal court?

Yes. An attorney may represent anyone charged with violating an ordinance.

TIP: If there is a possibility of jail time and you cannot afford a lawyer, cities may appoint a public defender to represent you in court.

State law does not prohibit me from renting an apartment to a gay couple. How can my refusal to rent violate an ordinance?

Ordinances are usually much stricter than state laws. Many cities have passed antidiscrimination statutes, which prohibit housing discrimination because of sexual preference.