This section of our web site is an overview of the Florida Court System prepared by the Administrative Office of the Courts, Twentieth Judicial Circuit. This booklet is designed to introduce the citizen to the Florida Court System in general and the Twentieth Judicial Circuit in particular. The Twentieth Circuit includes a five county area consisting of Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee Counties. At the time of printing, the Twentieth Judicial Circuit is served by twenty-four circuit judges and fourteen county court judges. The Administrative Office of the Courts is responsible for non-judicial affairs of the courts such as budget planning, assignment and distribution of cases and the supervision and administration of programs in support of the Court. Trial courts are generally open to the public Monday through Friday except on holidays. Visitors are welcome, large groups should contact the Administrative Office of the Courts at least two week in advance to arrange for a tour.
Visitors are also welcome in the District Court of Appeals and the Florida Supreme Court. Appellate court schedules differ from those of trial courts. Information about these courts should be obtained from the clerk of the particular court before any visit.
Florida State Courts System
Our circuit and county courts are part of the Florida State Courts system, created in 1972 with the adoption of Article V of the Florida Constitution. Article V established a four tiered judicial system. The top two tiers are appellate courts (the Florida Supreme Court and five District Courts of Appeal), which review the decisions of the courts below them. The third and fourth tiers (circuit and county courts) are primary trial courts.
All legal matters filed in the circuit and county courts are classified as civil or criminal.
Civil cases are disputes between private citizens, corporations, governmental bodies or other organizations involving the determination of private or civil rights or compensation for the infraction of those rights; for example, actions arising from landlord-tenant disputes, automobile or personal accidents, breach of warranty or consumer goods contract disputes, adoptions, marriage dissolutions (divorce), probate, guardianship, and professional liability suits.
Criminal cases are brought by the government against individuals or corporations accused of committing the crime. The government makes the charge because a crime is considered an act against all society. The state attorney prosecutes the charge against the accused (defendant) on behalf of the government and must prove to the judge or jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. There are two main classifications of crimes: felonies and misdemeanors. The more serious crimes are felonies, which are punishable by death, imprisonment for more than one year and/or fine. Misdemeanors are punishable by imprisonment for up to one year and/or fine.
Depending upon the nature of the action and the desire of the parties, a case may be tried before a judge or before a judge and jury. Whether the case is civil or criminal, tried by a judge or jury, the basic trial procedure is the same. Following is a step by step analysis of the trial process.
If a jury trial is requested, jury selection requires a panel of six or twelve persons. The process of selection of jurors is known as voir dire which is French for "speak the truth." The right to trial by jury is guaranteed in the United States Constitution. The number of jurors depends upon the kind of case to be decided. Only in capital cases (a crime punishable by death) is there a requirement of twelve jurors. The usual jury consists of six persons because of the time and expense involved in selecting and managing a twelve person jury.
In both circuit and county courts the procedure for trial by jury is essentially the same. There are usually fifteen to forty prospective jurors present in the courtroom to be selected as jurors. The clerk draws the needed number of names of all prospective jurors. The names of prospective jurors are drawn from the list of registered voters or such databases as designated by the state legislature. The presiding judge explains the case and identifies the parties and attorneys involved.
General questions are asked to all prospective jurors such as whether the jurors know the parties in the case. These general questions may be asked by the judge or one of the attorneys. Each prospective juror is then questioned, first by the plaintiff's attorney in a civil case (or the state attorney in a criminal matter), then by the defense attorney. The questions are designed to reveal a prospective juror's background and beliefs to determine any indication of prejudice or bias toward either party in the case. If an answer by a prospective juror indicates disqualification, either side in a case may challenge "for cause." If the judge determines that the prospective juror could not be impartial or there may be an appearance of unfairness, the judge will excuse the juror "for cause." Each party in a case may also use "peremptory challenges" to excuse jurors without giving specific reasons. The number of jurors excused for peremptory challenges depends upon the type of case. A new prospective juror is called and questioned to replace each juror that is excused. The process is repeated until the proper number of impartial jurors has been selected. At the conclusion of all challenges, the remaining number become the jury. Often an alternate juror is chosen to serve in the event of illness or emergency of one of the other jurors. The judge or court clerk then administers the oath to the jury.
After jury selection, all interested parties should be present and seated before a trial proceeds. Whenever a judge enters a courtroom everyone stands and remains standing until the judge is seated. Beginning with the plaintiff's attorney (prosecutor in criminal cases), each party makes an opening statement. The opening statement outlines the facts that each party expects to establish during the trial. The plaintiff's attorney presents his case first by calling witnesses and questioning them on direct examination. After direct examination of each witness, the attorney for the opposing party (defendant) is permitted to question the witness under cross-examination.
After the plaintiff's presentation, the defense is entitled to present its case, and a similar process of direct and cross-examination takes place. Finally, the attorney for each party presents a closing argument which sums up the evidence and testimony in a final effort to persuade the judge or jury. In a jury trial, after all evidence is presented and all witnesses heard, the judge instructs the jury on the law governing the case, defines the issues the jury must decide, and charges the jury to reach a fair verdict based on the evidence presented. The bailiff then takes the jurors into the jury room for consideration of the case. The jury remains in the jury room until a verdict is reached.
On October 1, 1983, State Sentencing Guidelines went into effect for all felony criminal cases. The Sentencing Guidelines have two goals: First, to set up a framework for determination of sentence that aids judges in structuring sentences without eliminating judicial discretion. Second, to ensure that defendants who are sentenced for similar crimes and have similar backgrounds, receive similar punishment. The guidelines are based on two factors: the seriousness of the charge and the offenders criminal history. When a judge chooses to depart from the guidelines he should state his reasons.
The Sentencing Guidelines apply to felony criminal cases only. Misdemeanor criminal cases remain within the discretion of the trial judge. !n misdemeanor cases the trial judge may impose any sentence within the minimum and maximum range provided by state law for a conviction.
In 1994, State law was changed to require persons convicted of criminal offenses to serve a minimum of 85% of the sentence imposed by the court.
acquit - To find a defendant not guilty in a criminal trial.
bail - An amount of money determined by the judge and posted with the court clerk as security to ensure the defendant's appearance in court at a specific time.
calendar - List of cases arranged for hearing in court.
damages - Compensation recovered in the courts by a person who has suffered loss, detriment or injury to his person, property or rights, through the unlawful act or negligence of another.
eminent domain - The power to take private property for public use by condemnation. See condemnation.
fact finding hearing - A proceeding where facts relevant to deciding a controversy are determined.
garnishment - Proceeding whereby property, money or credits of a debtor in the possession of another, are applied to the debts of the debtor, as in the garnishment of a person's wages.
habeas corpus - "You have the body." A writ of habeas corpus requires a person be brought before a judge. It is usually used to direct an official to produce a prisoner so that the court may determine if such person has been denied his or her liberty without due process.
immunity - Freedom from duty or penalty.
judge - An elected or appointed public official with authority to hear and decide cases in a court of law.
law - The combination of those rules and principles of conduct promulgated by legislative authority, derived from court decisions and established by local custom.
mandate - Command from a court directing the enforcement of a judgment, sentence or decree.
negligence - The absence of ordinary care.
oath - Written or oral pledge by a person to keep a promise or speak the truth.
parties - Persons, corporations, or associations who have commenced a law suit or who are defendants.
record - 1. To preserve in writing, print or by film, tape, etc. 2. History of a case. 3. The word-for-word (verbatim) written or tape recorded account of all proceedings of a trial. See transcript.
search and seizure, unreasonable - In general, an examination without authority of law, of one's premises or person for the purpose of discovering stolen or illegal property or some other evidence of guilt to be used in prosecuting a crime.
testimony - Any statement made by a witness under oath in a legal proceeding. tort - An injury or wrong committed, with or without force, to the person or property of another, which gives rise to a claim for damages.
venue - The specific county, city or geographical area in which a court has jurisdiction. See change of venue.
willful act - An intentional act carried out without justifiable cause.
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