The Colorado Courts at a Glance
Several different courts in Colorado handle various kinds of cases. These courts are:Municipal Courts
Municipal (city) courts deal with violations of city laws committed within the city limits. Generally, these laws involve traffic, shoplifting, and offenses such as dog leash law violations and disturbances. For some cases, you may have the right to a jury trial and to tell your side of the story in municipal court. Municipal courts are not state courts; however, you may appeal a municipal court decision to a state court.County Courts
Every county in the state has a county court, with one or more county judges. These courts handle traffic cases and minor criminal matters, as well as civil actions involving no more than $10,000. You may have a jury trial in many types of county court cases. An appeal from a county court decision may be made to the district court. Denver’s court system, which will be explained later, differs from the courts in other counties.District Courts
Each county in the state has a district court. Both district and county courts are organized into judicial districts. However, unlike county courts, where there is at least one judge per county court, district judges are assigned to the judicial district and may serve more than one district court within that judicial district, particularly in rural areas of the state.
District courts have authority to handle many types of cases including divorces, civil claims in any amount, juvenile matters, probate (estates), mental health, and criminal matters. You may appeal a district court decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals or to the Colorado Supreme Court.Denver Courts
Denver’s court system differs from those in the rest of the state, in part because Denver is both a city and a county. The Denver County Court functions as a municipal as well as a county court and is paid for entirely by Denver taxes rather than by state taxes. Denver has the only separate juvenile court and separate probate court in the state. In other parts of Colorado, district courts handle juvenile and probate matters. The Denver juvenile and probate courts are state courts, along with the Denver District Court.Court of Appeals
The Colorado Court of Appeals, located in Denver, has 16 judges. One is a chief judge. The court sits in divisions consisting of three judges. Divisions of this court sometimes go to various parts of the state to hear oral arguments on cases which have been appealed from state trial courts.
Unlike the other courts we have discussed, the Court of Appeals is not a trial court. The Court of Appeals usually is the first court to hear appeals of decisions made by Colorado district courts and Denver’s probate and juvenile courts. In addition, it is responsible for reviewing the decisions of several state administrative agencies. Its determination of an appeal is final unless the Colorado Supreme Court agrees to review the matter.
The Colorado Supreme Court has seven justices. A chief justice is elected by the court from its membership.
It is the court of last resort or the final court in the Colorado court system. An individual who has appealed to the Court of Appeals and is still dissatisfied may ask the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court has a right to refuse to do so. In some instances, individuals can petition the Supreme Court directly regarding a lower court’s decision.
The jury system is an important part of the court process in Colorado. Persons accused of crimes have an absolute right to trial by jury. Parties to a civil suit may choose to have their case decided by a jury.
Jurors are selected at random from a computerized list of names taken from voter and driver license registration records. Juror summonses are then sent to the people selected, informing them when and where they are to appear for jury service.
About 95 percent of all jury trials in the world take place in the United States. Those who have served as jurors often express a feeling of pride in and respect for our system of justice and an appreciation for the opportunity to be part of the judicial process.
Efforts to streamline the jury system are continuing. Jurors in Colorado now serve for only one day or one trial in any 12-month period. Employers must pay employed jurors their regular wages for the first three days of a trial. Unemployed jurors may claim a reimbursement for expenses. The state pays $50 per day to all jurors after the third day.
The opportunity to serve on a jury allows you to become a better informed and more responsible citizen and to learn more about your courts and the law.The Legal System
The State of Colorado has three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. The Colorado Constitution defines each branch’s responsibilities. The constitution also guarantees many specific legal rights to you and to all Coloradoans and provides for the establishment of state courts. Courts are part of the Judicial Branch of our government, and their major function is to resolve disputes.Criminal Cases
Criminal cases in state trial courts involve charges or violations of certain laws enacted by the legislature (called the “General Assembly” in Colorado). Criminal charges are filed by government attorneys, called district attorneys, on behalf of the people of the State of Colorado. Some criminal charges—called indictments—are filed by grand juries, but this procedure is not used very often in Colorado state courts.
The General Assembly establishes the definition of crimes and sets the penalties which trial judges may impose on convicted criminals. The Judicial Branch is responsible for the state courts and probation services. The Department of Corrections, which is under the Executive Branch, is responsible for the state prison system and community corrections facilities. The Department of Parole, also under the Executive Branch, is responsible for supervising convicted criminals after they are released from the state prison system. The Governor has the power to change the sentences of convicted criminals.
City (also called “municipal”) governments are similar in organization to the state government. City councils pass ordinances which control the behavior of individuals within the city limits. City attorneys may file charges when certain ordinances have been violated, and trials on such charges are held in a municipal court before a municipal judge. Municipal courts are not part of the state court system, but the procedures are very similar to those followed in state courts.
Whenever a defendant in a criminal case pleads guilty to or is found guilty of a criminal charge, the judge must sentence the defendant according to the law. Before any defendant is sentenced (except in traffic or other less serious criminal matters), the judge is given a report from the probation department. This report contains information about the defendant and recommendations from the probation department and other professionals involved in the case as to the sentence that should be imposed.
A defendant may be sentenced to serve a stated period of time in a correctional facility. The Department of Corrections decides in which institution the defendant will serve the sentence. Upon the recommendation of a district attorney, the judge may postpone sentencing a defendant for a stated period of time after the defendant enters a plea of guilty. If the defendant is a law-abiding citizen for that time, the judge may dismiss the case and the criminal record of the defendant may be erased. This is called a “deferred sentence.”
A defendant may be granted probation. If this is done, the judge places the defendant under the supervision of the probation department instead of imposing a sentence to a correctional institution. Most defendants who receive probation are first-time offenders involved in non-violent crimes. Payment to the victim for any losses (called “restitution”) is usually a requirement of probation. A defendant who violates probation or a deferred sentence may be sent to a correctional facility.
Defendants who are sent to a correctional facility may be released prior to their sentence being fully served by being granted parole by the State Board of Parole. Defendants on parole must keep the parole officer advised of all their activities for the time required by the board. Defendants who violate conditions of parole may be returned to a correctional facility.Probation
Each judicial district has a probation department, which is managed by a chief probation officer. The mission of probation is two fold: supervision of offenders sentenced to community programs and protection of the community. Supervision includes counseling, referral of defendants to treatment facilities, collection of restitution, drug and alcohol testing, and home detention. Special needs offenders are referred to specialized programs. These programs are designed for female offenders, sexual perpetrators, and drug offenders. Certain high-risk offenders are referred to intensive supervision probation programs. This may include home monitoring. Defendants who fail to comply with conditions of probation can be returned to court.
Another function of probation is to provide assessments and pre-sentence information to the court. Pre-sentence investigation reports, or PSIs, are prepared to present information necessary for the judge to sentence the offender. PSI reports typically contain information regarding details of the current offense, circumstances of the victim such as restitution, the offender’s criminal record and social background, and recommendations for sentencing. If the offender is granted probation, these reports are also helpful to the supervising probation officer in assisting in the development of case planning.
If the offender is to be incarcerated, the report is forwarded to the Department of Corrections or Department of Institutions where it is used in the diagnostic and placement process. Eventually, it may be reviewed by the parole board if the offender applies for parole. Over the years the incidence of alcohol and drug-related traffic offenses has dramatically increased. In Colorado, almost half of all traffic fatalities are alcohol-related. This has prompted the creation of a special unit under the umbrella of probation.
Within the auspices of a probation department is an alcohol/drug unit which evaluates and recommends treatment for defendants convicted of alcohol or drug-related driving offenses. Alcohol evaluators make assessments based on in-depth interviews and diagnostic testing. Due to the complexity of substance abuse problems, evaluators select programs for offenders from a variety of referrals. These referrals can range from weekly outpatient groups or individual therapy to daily outpatient sessions. More chronic problems and addictions may require more intense treatment.
Often substance abusers cannot stop using drugs or alcohol on their own so they must be hospitalized. An evaluator may assist with this process. To augment treatment and promote abstinence, ant abuse treatment or urinalysis is often recommended. Evaluators receive and maintain yearly certification through the Colorado Health Department/Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division.