Jennifer teaches critical thinking, legal writing and research, business law and justice studies courses. She has a law degree.
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.
Different state legal codes define different classes or categories of summary offenses. In Pennsylvania, for example, there are summary offense categories that range from the first (most serious) to the eighth (least serious) degree. In Pennsylvania, punishments vary and range from monetary fines (generally as low as $25 and as high as $1,500) to jail time (typically no more than 90 days). State laws vary, but summary offenses are never afforded a jury trial. Summary offenses can also show up on criminal background checks.
There are many different types and examples of summary offenses. Some of the most common include (in no particular order):
- Demonstrations of disrespectful or disruptive behavior toward a judge or in a courtroom
- Other types of disorderly conduct
- Some types of harassment
- Public intoxication and underage drinking
- Traffic offenses (such as parking and speeding tickets)
- Minor assaults
- Minor property offenses
- Writing bad checks
- Other minor or petty offenses
State law varies, and different states can (and do) treat different offenses differently.
A summary or petty offense is the least serious of criminal law violations. However, summary offenses still bear, in many circumstances, quite significant penalties. The primary characteristic distinguishing a summary offense from other crimes is the way the crime is handled by our court system. Summary offenses are processed 'summarily' without any right to a jury trial.
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