Justice of the Peace

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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A judicial officer with limited power whose duties may include hearing cases that involve civil controversies, conserving the peace, performing judicial acts, hearing minor criminal complaints, and committing offenders.

Justices of the peace are regarded as civil public officers, distinct from peace or police officers. Depending on the region in which they serve, justices of the peace are also known as magistrates, squires, and police or district judges. In some districts, such as the District of Columbia, justices of the peace are considered officers of the United States. In other regions, their jurisdiction is limited to a state, city, precinct, county, or township.

The position of justice of the peace originated in England in 1361 with the passing of the Justice of the Peace Act. In colonial America the position, with its judicial, executive, and legislative powers, was the community's main political force and therefore the most powerful public office open to colonists. Legal training was not a prerequisite.

Maintaining community order was a priority in the colonial era. The justice of the peace in this period was responsible for arresting and arraigning citizens who violated moral or legal standards. By the early 1800s, the crimes handled by the justice of the peace included drunkenness, ADULTERY, price evasion (selling below a minimum price fixed by law), and public disorder. Justices of the peace also served as county court staff members and heard GRAND JURY and civil cases. The increasing number of criminal, slave, and tax statutes that were passed during the 1800s also broadened the enforcement powers of the justice of the peace.

Today justices of the peace deal with minor criminal matters and preside only in the lowest state courts. Their legal duties encompass standard judicial tasks such as issuing arrest or search warrants, performing marriage ceremonies, handling routine traffic offenses, determining PROBABLE CAUSE, imposing fines, and conducting inquests.

The duties of a justice of the peace vary by statute, and it is the justice's responsibility to know which actions are within the scope of his or her jurisdiction. For example, a few statutes do not allow justices of the peace to be involved in the operation of another business or profession; however, they can invest in or receive a salary from another business, as long as they are not involved with its operation.

Justices are often...

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