Montana Court Records
How Does Montana Municipal Court Work?
Montana Municipal Courts are lower courts with limited jurisdiction over criminal and civil violations of municipal ordinances in Montana. By law, the Municipal Courts in Montana are courts of record and must maintain a regulated docket. Thus, the Clerk of Courts generates and maintains official records of proceedings useful when restarting a district court proceeding.
Chapter 6, Title 1 of the Montana Code Annotated governs municipal courts’ establishment in the state. The statutes mandate cities with a population size of more than 4,000 residents to establish a municipal court. The law also states that a municipality may only create a municipal court after a two-thirds majority vote of the city’s governing body.
Generally, the court has coextensive jurisdiction with the Justice Courts in the city. However, it has exclusive original jurisdiction over all civil and criminal proceedings originating under Section 3–11–103. The bulk of these cases include proceedings for criminal or civil violations of an ordinance, tax collection, and small claims less than $9,500, as well as actions for the collection of a license fee required by law.
Furthermore, the municipal court’s jurisdiction extends to specific property actions filed in the district court as specified in Title 70, chapters 24 through 27. Likewise, the municipal court may receive and process applications for search warrants and complaints regarding allegations of a felony.
Other typical cases within the court’s jurisdiction are
- Traffic violations speeding, parking, other traffic infractions
- First-time DWI offense
- Juvenile offenses
- Underage substance possession
- Underage gambling
- Building code violations
- Disorderly conduct
- Trespassing & Personal torts
- Health code violations
- Animal control violations
- Fish and game violations
Judges of municipal courts run in a nonpartisan election to an initial term of four years or a length specified in the municipal ordinance. There is no fixed number of judges in a municipal court. Instead, the city’s governing body determines, by law, the number of judges required to operate the municipal court. If there is more than one judge, the judges must adopt a procedure for selecting the chief municipal judge. Otherwise, the most senior judge shall serve as the chief municipal court judge.
In addition to other duties specified by ordinance, the chief municipal court judge is the administrative head of the municipal court and has the following responsibilities:
- Ensure the efficient management of the court with other judges;
- Maintain a central docket of the court’s cases;
- Regulate the distribution of cases from the central docket among judges;
- Request the jurors needed for cases set for a jury trial;
- Reassign or substitute judges among the departments as necessary for court business;
- Supervise and delegate duties to court personnel and court officer;
- Appoint a part-time assistant judge, who must have the same qualifications as a judge pro tempore (as provided under section 3–6–204);
Generally, municipal court judgeship candidates must meet the following eligibility requirements specified in Article VII, Part VII, Section 9 of the Montana Constitution. The ideal candidate must:
- Be a citizen of the United States
- Have resided in the state at least two years before taking office
- Have passed the bar exam and practiced law in Montana for at least five years
- Reside within the state during the terms of office
- Not hold any other elected office of public service
- Abide by the canons of the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct
As of September 2020, there are seven (7) municipal courts in Montana. According to statistical reports by the judiciary, these courts process an average of 10,000 cases and violations annually. Missoula Municipal Court has the highest case volume among municipal courts: it handles about 18,000 cases and violations annually.
Generally, cases in municipal courts typically begin with the issuance of a citation, summons, or when the city attorney initiates the prosecution of a felony committed within the city limits. Usually, the court will impose administrative fines, community service, jail time, or a combination of penalties on the guilty offender. If dissatisfied with the municipal judge’s ruling, the appellant may petition the district court to initiate a new proceeding. Litigants may choose self-representation or contract the services of an attorney.
Municipal court proceedings are open to the public, but public attendance of hearings may be restricted in matters deemed confidential or sensitive. Sensitive issues include certain juvenile hearings and proceedings intended to protect the privacy of witnesses in many cases.
Furthermore, under the Montana Public Records Act, the public may retrieve publicly available case information from the Clerk of Municipal Court or the applicable official custodian. Depending on the records sought, requesters may visit the court in person or use an online repository maintained by the municipal court cases. For example, to find municipal court records in Kalispell, visit the research webpage. The requester must provide the necessary information to facilitate the search and cover the costs of reproducing the documents. In some cases, the court may waive expenses at the discretion of the custodian.
Parties can find a list of municipal courts’ address and contact information in Montana using the Court Locator on the Montana Judicial Branch website.