FL’S Criminal Justice System: The Courts (Part 1)

In my practice, I find that an extraordinarily high number of clients are simply unaware of how our state’s court system is structured, let alone works. If you count yourself among the unfamiliar, worry not. In a series of blog posts that I’ll caption “FL’s Criminal Justice System,” I will endeavor to break down this vital information into easy-to-understand, digestible pieces. Part 1 is titled, “The Courts,” because before you can understand how the process works, you have to understand the parts involved.

For starters, in criminal law, there are basically two types of courts: trial and appellate.

A trial court is what most people envision the court system to be like, based on TV and movie references. It is here where, after an arrest, people go to have hearings on all sorts of issues (e.g. pre-trial release or bond; Discovery issues (more on this later); motions; to take plea deals) and, of course, have a trial if they choose. There are two types of trial courts in Florida: County and Circuit. The County Courts handle misdemeanors (a crime punishable by up to 364 days in jail) and the Circuit Courts handle felonies (punishable by a year or more in prison). These courtrooms usually have 1 judge seated on “the bench,” a bailiff (the quasi-security guard of the judge and room), clerks (who work for the court system as a whole, and are indispensable), two or three prosecutors, one or two public defenders, and a designated area for the members of the public.

An appellate court is something most people don’t see on TV and in movies. It’s a court specifically designated to hear appeals or post-conviction relief motions that come from the lower trial courts. (For example, if A chooses to go to trial and loses, A will likely file a direct appeal to an appellate court). They also handle writs, which, put simply, are motions asking for extraordinary relief. There are three types of appellate courts in Florida: Circuit, District Courts of Appeal, and the Florida Supreme Court. Each one has its place in the system and there are rules (and constitutional principles) controlling when and how a person can appeal to these courts.

If someone wants to appeal a trial court’s decision or jury verdict from a trial in County Court, almost always their appeal will be filed in the Circuit Court. (Yes, if you’ve noticed that there are trial and appellate courts named Circuit, good observation. They’re actually comprised of the same judges; however, while they almost always sit as trial judges, sometimes they are called upon to “sit in an appellate capacity”). If someone wants to appeal from Circuit Court (trial), they file an appeal with the appropriate District Court of Appeal. There are five District Courts of Appeal in Florida:

  • First (Tallahassee);
  • Second (Lakeland);
  • Third (Miami);
  • Fourth (West Palm Beach); and,
  • Fifth (Daytona Beach).

.As a general rule, decisions of the District Courts of Appeal represent the final appellate review of litigated cases. However, in some rare instances, a person may be able to appeal either directly (i.e. death penalty cases) or indirectly (i.e. all other matters are usually a matter of discretion) to the Florida Supreme Court who is the highest appellate authority in Florida. At the Circuit and DCA level, there are usually three-judge panels that decided a case (v. one judge at the trial level). At the Florida Supreme Court, there are seven. These odd numbers are by design; it’ll take convincing the majority of judges that your position is correct to win on appeal.

There is undoubtedly tons more information that I could discuss how the courts are structured, but these are the basics anyone should know. For more information, you can always visit the Florida Courts or other websites that have diagrams and more thorough explanations.

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