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Understanding The Grand Canyon State's Criminal Justice System
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Understanding The Grand Canyon State’s Criminal Justice System

Governor Jerry Brown signs senate bill 42 in 1976Governor Jerry Brown signs senate bill 42 in 1976

Arizona’s criminal justice system is responsible for providing public safety by deterring and preventing crime, punishing offenders, documenting these interactions with both arrest records and criminal records, and reintroducing those who have served their time back into the community. The criminal justice system is based on the body of laws that define crimes and offenses, and specify what punishments are appropriate for those crimes.

Arizona Criminal Code defines two different kinds of laws: felonies, misdemeanors.

  • Felonies are usually the most serious crime. Arizona defines it as “an offense for which a sentence to a term of imprisonment in the custody of the state department of corrections is authorized by any law of the state.” An individual that is convicted of a felony may face jail time, though that time may be spent in either a county jail, or a state prison. Felonies cover crimes that are considered both serious, and/or violent. Commonly known felonies include murder, robbery, rape, burglary, and assault. Felony punishments vary in harshness depending on the nature of the crime, discretion of the court, and the offender’s criminal history.

  • A misdemeanor is typically a less serious crime, and common punishments include probation, county jail time, fines, or a combination of all three. Arizona defines this type of crime as “an offense for which a sentence to a term of imprisonment other than to the custody of the state department of corrections is authorized by any law of this state.” Common misdemeanors include assault, theft, and public drunkenness.

Governor Jerry Brown speaking about determinate sentencing in 1976. Photo by Tony Korody/Sygma via CorbisGovernor Jerry Brown speaking about determinate sentencing in 1976. Photo by Tony Korody/Sygma via Corbis

Felonies in Arizona

Felonies in Arizona are categorized into six different classes to represent different severities of both crime and punishment.


Class 1 Felony

Felonies are punishable with death or with life in prison. They represent the punishment for first and second degree murder in the state of Arizona.

Class 2 Felony

Felonies are typically punished with a sentence of 12.5 years (150 months) in prison. One crime in this category is the possession of dangerous drugs with the intent to sell (such drugs and amounts include at least nine grams of meth, at least nine grams of cocaine, at least .5 milliliter of LSD, at least two pounds of marijuana, and at least four grams of PCP.) Other crimes include the trafficking of stolen property, first degree burglary with a firearm, theft of property valued at over $25,000, and sex crimes involving a child.

Class 3 Felony

Felonies are punishable with 8.75 years (105 months) in prison. Common crimes in this category include theft of a vehicle or other means of transportation, theft of property valued at over $4,000, and burglary in the second degree.

Class 4 Felony

Felonies are punished with 3.75 years (45 months) in prison. Crimes in this category include possession of dangerous drugs such as meth, growing marijuana without approval for medical use, and theft of property valued at over $3,000.

Class 5 Felony

Felonies are punishable with 2.5 years (30 months) in prison. Arrestable offenses in this category include theft of property valued at more than $2,000, personal possession of marijuana in an amount over 2 pounds, and unlawful operation of a vehicle or other means of transportation.

Class 6 Felony

Felonies are punishable with 2 years (24 months) in prison. Common crimes in this category include possession of marijuana for uses other than medical consumption, unlawful use of a vehicle or other means of transportation (distinct in that an offender need not operate the vehicle to be culpable), possession of drug paraphernalia, and theft of property valued at over $1,000.

Misdemeanors in Arizona

Misdemeanors in Arizona are categorized into three different categories to represent different severities of both crime and punishment.


Class 1 Misdemeanor

Misdemeanors are punishable by up to 6 months in jail, 3-5 years of probation, and $2,500 in fines and costs. Common class 1 misdemeanors include DUIs (driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs), driving with a suspended license, assault, disorderly conduct, shoplifting, and theft.

Class 2 Misdemeanor

Misdemeanors are punishable by up to 4 months in jail, 2 years of probation, and $750 in fines and costs. Common class 2 misdemeanors include reckless driving, assault, and second degree criminal trespassing.

Class 3 Misdemeanor

Misdemeanors are punishable by up to 30 days in jail, 1 year of probation, and up to $500 in fines and costs. Common class 3 misdemeanors include minor assault, trespassing in the third degree, and speeding.

How the Arizona Courts are Organized

Judiciary Organizational Chart

Supreme Court 7 Justices, 6-year terms

Chief Justice, Vice Chief Justice
& 5 Associate Justices

Court of Appeals 22 Judges, 6-year terms

Division I, Phoenix Chief Judge & 15 Associate Judges.

Counties: Apache, Coconino, LaPaz, Mari-

copa, Mohave, Navajo, Yavapai, Yuma

Division II, Tucson Chief Judge & 5 Associate Judges.

Counties: Cochise, Gila, Graham,

Greenlee, Pima, Pinal, Santa Cruz.

Superior Court 180 Judges, 4-year terms
Presiding Judge in each county

In addition to the judicial positions listed above, there are approximately 111 full- time and part-time judges pro tempore, commissioners and hearing officers in the Superior Court.

Justice of the Peace Courts 88 Judges, 88 Precincts, 4-year terms

Supreme Court 7 Justices, 6-year terms


Three level court system

1. Limited Jurisdiction

These are the justice of the peace courts or the municipal and city courts. These courts have “limited jurisdiction,” meaning they have limited authority in certain cases. The cases they have authority over is limited by the subject of the case, the amount of money involved, or the sentence that can be imposed.

There are two sections to the Limited Jurisdiction Courts, and they are the Justice Courts, and the Municipal Courts.

  • Municipal Courts are situated in incorporated cities and towns, and are colloquially known as city or magistrate courts. They have criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanor crimes and petty offenses committed in their municipality. They often hear traffic cases, including DUIs, and also hear civil cases, which are often driving violations against city ordinances and codes. This also includes Order of Protection and injunctions prohibiting harassment. Municipal courts are also able to issue search warrants, but they do not hear civil lawsuits between citizens.
  • Justice Courts are responsible for different precincts inside a county. Generally, these precincts are larger than city or town limits. Justice courts hear criminal and civil cases, and traffic cases. They can issue search warrants, and their civil jurisdiction is limited to cases involving claims of $10,000 or less. Justice courts share jurisdiction with the superior court in cases of disputes between tenants and landlords, and where damage compensation requested is between $5,000 and $10,000. Generally speaking, they have jurisdiction over petty offenses and misdemeanors, assault and battery, breaches of the peace and wilful damage to property, misdemeanors and criminal offenses punishable by fines less than $2,500 or imprisonment in county jail for less than six months.
  • In order to be a justice, a four-year candidate must be 18 years old, must be an Arizona resident, must be a qualified voter in the precinct of the court they are running for, and must be able to read and write in English. Notably, they are not required to be a lawyer.


2. General Jurisdiction

The general jurisdiction court is the higher level - superior - court of Arizona, and serves as a statewide trial court. These types of courts hear the widest variety of cases. Each county has one or more superior courts and is named after its location. One such example is the Superior Court of Apache County.

The Superior Court is the state’s general jurisdictions court. It is a single organization with multiple locations in each county. Because of this, each county has at least one superior court judge. In some cases, multiple counties are present in a county, requiring it to have multiple superior court judges.

Superior courts act as appellate courts for justices and municipal courts. They also act as the primary supervisory outlet for those under probationary laws.

Superior courts have jurisdiction over

  • Cases and proceedings in which exclusive jurisdiction is not vested by law in another court.

    • • Equity cases that involve title to or possession of real property or the legality of any tax, assessment, toll, or municipal ordinance.
    • • Other cases in which the value of property in question is $1,000 or more, exclusive of interest and costs.
    • • Criminal cases amounting to a felony and misdemeanor cases not otherwise provided for by law.
    • • Forcible entry and detainer actions (evictions of renters).
    • • Proceedings in insolvency (but not bankruptcy, which is handled in federal court).
    • • Actions to prevent or stop nuisances.
    • • Matters of probate (wills and estates).
    • • Dissolution or annulment of marriages (divorces).
    • • Naturalization and the issuance of appropriate documents for these events.
    • • Special cases and proceedings not otherwise provided for and such other jurisdiction as may be provided by law.

Superior Court judges must be at least 30 years old, have good moral character as judged by their peers, must have been admitted to the practice of law in Arizona, must be a resident of Arizona for at least five years leading up to their election, and must be a resident of the county in which they are elected.


3. Appellate Jurisdiction

The Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court serve as Arizona’s appellate courts. The state appellate courts have authority to review cases and decisions from other, smaller courts in the state. The two divisions of the Court of Appeals hear most of the appeals that come from the Superior Court with the exception of death penalty appeals and cases involving elected officials and disputes between counties. Cases involving such circumstances go directly to the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals must hear every appeal while the Supreme Court may decide to deny appeals. Decisions made by the Court of Appeals may, in turn, be appealed to the Supreme Court, making the Supreme Court of Arizona the highest court in the State.

The Court of Appeals was established in 1965 as the first level of appeal above the superior courts. The court of appeals hears and decides cases in three-judge panels, has jurisdiction in all matters properly appealed from a superior court, and reviews all decisions appealed to it. Each division of the court of appeals has a clerk of the court and other support personnel. Clerks of the Court are responsible for maintaining records and case files, and handles the administrative duties of the court.

The Supreme Court’s primary judicial duties are to review appeals and provide rules of procedure for all courts in Arizona. They are the highest court in the state and are known as the court of last resort. They have discretionary jurisdiction, meaning the court may refuse to review or appeal a case. They do however automatically review every case in which a defendant is sentenced to death.

To qualify for the supreme court, a justice:

  • – Must be admitted to the practice of law in Arizona for 10 years leading up to their time in office.
  • – Must not practice law while in office.
  • – Must not hold any other office in a political capacity.
  • – Must not hold an office of any political party.
  • – Must not campaign, except for themselves.
  • – Must retire at age 70.


How cases move through the court system (courtesy of

Limited Jurisdiction Courts

Initial Appearance – This is the defendant’s first appearance in court, and the defendant is advised of the charges. The judge appoints an attorney if the defendant cannot afford one.

Arraignment – The defendant appears in court to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. Many limited jurisdiction courts combine the initial appearance and the arraignment.

Trial – If the defendant pleads not guilty, a trial is held. The judge - or at the defendant’s request, a jury - can hear evidence on the charges and find the defendant guilty or not guilty.

Sentencing – If the defendant is found guilty, the court imposes the appropriate punishment (sentence).

Appeals – Appeals from decisions of limited jurisdiction courts go to superior court. An appeal may be heard as a new trial (a trial de novo), or the superior court judge may review records of trial proceedings if records have been kept. Decisions made in small claims court cannot be appealed.


Superior Court Criminal

Arrest – A person is arrested by a law enforcement officer who either sees a crime happen or has a warrant for arrest when probable cause exists that a person committed a crime. When a person is arrested, the person must be brought before a judge for an initial appearance within 24 hours of being arrested or else be released.

Initial Appearance – At the initial appearance, the judge determines the defendant’s name and address, informs the defendant of the charges and of the right to remain silent and to have an attorney. The judge appoints an attorney if the defendant cannot afford one and sets the conditions for release from jail.

Preliminary Hearing – If a preliminary hearing is held, the judge hears evidence and testimony from witnesses called by the prosecuting attorney and the defendant’s attorney. If the judge determines there is enough evidence to believe the defendant probably committed the crime, the defendant is held for trial in superior court, and an arraignment date is set.

Arraignment – At the arraignment, the defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest (nolo contendere). If the defendant enters a not guilty plea, the judge will set a trial date. If the defendant enters a guilty plea or declares no contest to the charges, the judge will set a date to sentence the defendant for the crime.


  • Opening Statements – The defendant has the right to a trial in which either a jury or the judge determines guilt. When the court is ready for the trial to begin, each side can make an opening statement. In a criminal case, the prosecuting attorney speaks first.
  • Closing Arguments – After the prosecution and the defense have presented all of their evidence, each side may make closing arguments. Closing arguments - similar to opening statements - provide an opportunity for the attorneys to address the judge or the jury a final time. The prosecutor speaks first, usually summarizing the evidence that has been presented and highlighting items most beneficial to the prosecution. The defendant’s attorney speaks next. The defense attorney usually summarizes the strongest points of the defendant’s case and points out flaws in the prosecutor’s case. The prosecutor then has one last opportunity to speak.


Instructing the Jury – After closing arguments in a jury trial, the judge reads instructions to the jurors, explaining the law that applies to the case. Jury members must follow these instructions in reaching a verdict.

Jury Deliberations – The jury goes to a special jury room and elects a foreman to lead the discussion. Jurors must consider all of the evidence presented, review the facts of the case, and reach a verdict. When the jury makes its decision, the court is called back into session.

Verdict – The foreman presents a written verdict to the judge, and either the judge or the court clerk reads the jury’s verdict to the court. The court then enters a judgment based on the verdict, and the jury is released from service. If found not guilty, the defendant is released immediately. If the defendant is found guilty, a date is set for sentencing.  The defendant may be held in custody or remain on release status until sentencing.

Sentencing – A sentencing hearing is scheduled to determine the punishment a convicted defendant will receive. The judge hears testimony from the prosecution and the defense regarding the punishment that each side feels the convicted defendant should receive.


Superior Court Civil

  • – The plaintiff files a document (a complaint or a petition) with the clerk of the court stating the reasons why the plaintiff is suing the defendant and what action the plaintiff wants the court to take.
  • – The plaintiff must state whether the case is eligible for arbitration according to court rule.
  • – A copy of the complaint and a summons are delivered to (served on) the defendant.
  • – The defendant has a limited time (usually 20 days) to file a written answer admitting or denying the statements in the complaint.
  • – The plaintiff and the defendant exchange information about the case. This is called discovery.
  • – The case is tried before a jury or a judge. Civil trial procedure is similar to criminal procedure, with each side having the opportunity for opening and closing statements, direct examination and cross-examination of witnesses, and introduction of other evidence.
  • – The judge makes a decision or the jury gives its verdict, based on the testimony and other evidence presented during trial.
  • – The losing party may appeal the decision to the next higher level of the court.


Court of Appeals Case Processing

When an appeal is filed, the trial court sends the official case records to the Court of Appeals. When the records and the attorneys’ written arguments (briefs) have been received by the court, the case is said to be at issue and is assigned to a three-judge panel for consideration. All cases filed in the Court of Appeals must be accepted for review and decided by the court.

The brief of the person filing the appeal (the appellant) contains legal and factual arguments as to why the decision of the trial court should be reversed. The person against whom the appeal is made has the right to respond to these arguments.

An appellate court does not conduct trials. It reviews papers, exhibits, and transcripts from the trial court. These items are the record on appeal and are used to determine whether the trial court correctly followed the law in making its decision.

After they have reviewed the record, Court of Appeals judges may hear oral arguments from the attorneys before deciding the case and issuing an opinion. A majority vote (at least two out of three judges in agreement) decides the case.

Court of Appeals judges have three choices when making a decision: affirm (agree with) the trial court’s decision; reverse the decision (disagree); remand the case (send the case back to the trial court for further action or a new trial).


Supreme Court Case Processing

When a party wants the Supreme Court to hear a case, the party files a petition for review. The record then is transferred to the Supreme Court. After examining the petition for review and supporting materials, the court decides whether to grant or deny review.

In almost all cases, the Supreme Court’s review is discretionary. This means the court may decide not to accept the case.  In that event, the last decision from a lower court is final.

When the Supreme Court decides to review a lower court decision, the justices study the record and the questions or points of law it raises. In most cases, the court will hear oral arguments from the attorneys involved in the appeal.

During oral argument, the attorney for the appellant (the party making the appeal) highlights and clarifies the client’s side of the case. Then the attorney for the appellee (the party responding to the appeal) presents the other side. The justices often question the attorneys about the issues and about the case law cited in support of their position.

After reviewing the parties’ briefs and hearing the parties’ oral argument, the justices meet privately to deliberate and vote on how the case should be resolved. A majority vote (three out of five votes) decides the case, and the Chief Justice assigns a justice to write the court’s majority opinion.

Decisions of the court must be in writing. When issuing a written decision or opinion, the court may: Affirm (agree with) the judgment of the lower court, which means that judgment is final; Reverse (disagree with) the decision of the lower court, meaning the Supreme Court’s decision must be carried out; Remand the case (send it back to the trial court for further action and possible retrial).


Arizona Criminal Justice Commission

The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission is the coordinating agency for the Arizona Criminal Justice System, and is located at 1110 W Washington St, Ste. 230, Phoenix, AZ. They can be reached at 602.364.1147.

Their chief goal is to enhance the “overall efficiency, accuracy, and timely accessibility to criminal history records and data for criminal justice practitioners at local, county, and state levels.”

Their strategy is to protect public safety and security standards for Arizonans through a collaborative information sharing environment while simultaneously protecting the privacy of citizens and making sure private information is kept confidential. This includes a list of goals and objectives.

Goal 1 is to improve criminal records quality via an increase in timeliness, accuracy, completeness, and accessibility. This would be done through identifying opportunities to enhance the automation of information delivery, the effectiveness of programs, and the efficiency of operations. It will also be achieved through promotions of record improvement collaborations across the criminal justice system.

Goal 2 is to Enhance information sharing across jurisdictional boundaries. This will be achieved through the development of a conceptual framework that supports information sharing leverages initiatives and opportunities. The second objective is to pursue avenues that enhance the connectivity of disparate components, systems, and databases to promote seamless information delivery.