What is a Summary Offense? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Jennifer Schneider

Jennifer teaches critical thinking, legal writing and research, business law and justice studies courses. She has a law degree.

This lesson discusses the meaning and potential implications of a summary offense. Examples of specific types of summary offenses will be presented. A short quiz to test your knowledge follows the lesson.

Swift Processing in the Express Lane

It's late and you are hurrying home after a long day at work. Your stomach growls and you realize, with disappointment, that your refrigerator is empty. You reluctantly stop at the grocery store. You plan a short list in your head, just enough items to prepare a simple, but filling, chicken dinner. You run into the store and quickly grab what you need.

Once at the front of the Express line, you realize you have 16 items, when only 15 are allowed. The clerk references the sign and places one item aside. You protest, but then shrug and comply. You check out quickly and efficiently, processed through the express line, and head home. Sadly, you now have no chicken.

Your relatively minor breach of the rules was dealt with quickly and efficiently. In our judicial system, a summary offense is treated similarly. The process associated with the commission of a summary offense is a quicker and abbreviated version of the process associated with the commission of other offenses.

Summary Offense - Defined

Under the U.S. legal system, a crime is a 'social wrong'. There are many different types of social wrongs, with large variation in severity and seriousness. Felonies are the most serious types of crimes. Misdemeanors are less serious. A summary offense (often referred to as a petty offense) is a crime that is generally viewed as the least serious in nature. The United States judicial system can, and does, process these without any right to a jury trial (a trial by peers or members of the general community) or an indictment (a written accusation of a crime that is given by a grand jury to the associated court and which must be proven at a subsequent trial).

Instead of processing through a jury trial or by an indictment, a summary offense can be processed 'summarily' - with relative ease, efficiency, and quickness. Defendants retain a right to a bench trial (where a judge hears and determines how a case will be resolved).

The primary characteristic that distinguishes a summary offense from other crimes is the way the crime is handled by our court system. The process is simplified. Much like a non-compliant customer in the express line at the grocery story, the defendant charged with a summary offense moves through the criminal justice system at what is intended to be a speedier and more efficient rate than the general population of customers or defendants.

Implications and Penalties

Summary offenses are often thought of as the more (if not most) minor violations of our laws. These crimes are considered less serious than misdemeanors. However, summary offenses, even though they are considered to be minor, still frequently incur significant penalties. Similar to a clerk's right to remove the chicken from your group of items, all of which were chosen because of their role in your chicken dish recipe, a court can impose a significant penalty for breach of a summary offense.

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