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What is a Local Ordinance?

By L. Dunne
Updated May 16, 2024
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In the United States, a local ordinance is considered a rule of conduct put in place by the local government in a city or town and can be found in the municipal code for that particular city or town. These regulations are voted on by the city council and may include issues such as zoning, traffic, taxes, parks, pets, and construction. The city ordinance is only effective within the city limits.

The charge for violating a local ordinance is a civil infraction in most instances and is considered non-criminal. The punishment for violating the ordinance is usually a fine, probation or community service. Many cities also have a maximum fine, and no more can be charged, regardless of the ordinance violation. In a trial for violation of an ordinance, a public defender is not available to the accused as no jail time is possible. The accused may hire a private defender if he or she so chooses.

Often, the municipal code merely re-enforces state laws. If the violated local ordinance mirrors a state law, then both were violated. Violation of a state law is more serious, and the accused may be charged with violating that law rather than the city ordinance. The state prosecutor, not a city attorney, will prosecute these violations. A conviction for violating a state law will also carry a stiffer sentence, which may include jail time.

The burden of proof in ordinance cases is a preponderance of evidence. In a state case, it is beyond a reasonable doubt. In most cases, an ordinance violation will not show on a criminal record or background check, unless a state law was also violated. A conviction for the state charge, not the ordinance, will show up on the record and background check. Violators should check with the county clerk to be sure, however, prior to assuming they have no criminal record for a city ordinance violation.

Local police enforce the municipal code for the city. State highway patrol officers or sheriffs are unable to detain for or charge an individual with a violation of a local ordinance. State and federal laws will always overrule local ordinances, if there is a discrepancy. Any individual or group of people can challenge a local ordinance, if they believe that an ordinance violates rights set forth by the US constitution.

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Discussion Comments

By Markerrag — On Jan 24, 2015

@Logicfest -- And you also have a point, but consider that the most dangerous municipal ordinances are often posted but are done so in a sneaky way and paired to state law to criminalize conduct.

Here is what I mean. I know a town that, like most cities, sets speed limits on its streets. There is one section of road where the speed limit goes from 35 MPH to 15 MPH without skipping a beat. And who is hiding behind the trees near that lower speed limit side?

That's right. A police officer ready to write a ticket to anyone caught speeding. So, we have a local ordinance (in effect) that is tied to a state law (speeding) and is clearly unfair.

Hey, I don't blame the officer for doing his job. But I do think that is a jerky move on the part of the town that manufactured a way to generate more city revenue.

By Logicfest — On Jan 23, 2015

@Soulfox -- You have a point, but figuring out how to run afoul of one local ordinance or another is not impossible. Just remember that those ordinances are typically in line with state laws so they can't make something illegal that a state law explicitly says is legal.

Also, keep in mind that most cities post the more restrictive local ordinances in places where people can read them. In my town, for example, the "no loitering" ordinance is posted all over the place. The same is true of speed limits on city controlled streets.

Frankly, I think it can be difficult to commit a local ordinance violation. Common sense will usually steer you the right way, and look for obvious postings when a local ordinance runs counter to that.

By Soulfox — On Jan 22, 2015

Trying to figure out the various local ordinances can lead to madness. There is little rhyme or reason among the various ordinances in all the cities scattered across the United States. It kind of makes the old maxim suggesting that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" look ridiculous. It is very easy to not be aware of local ordinances and, in some cases, violating them is far too easy.

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