fighting couple

How to Determine Jurisdiction in a Court Case

An issue that often arises in the practice of criminal law is the concept of jurisdiction—or the authority of a court to hear and resolve a case. Jurisdiction is essentially the ability of any court to hear a specific type of case within a well-defined boundary. The ability to decide a case based on type is called “subject matter jurisdiction,” while the ability to decide a case based on location is called “physical jurisdiction.” If a court has jurisdiction, the case may continue; if the court lacks jurisdiction, the case must be dismissed.

I will use the example of a Class B misdemeanor Domestic Violence (DV) Assault to illustrate the different jurisdictions that might come into play from a single criminal incident. Let’s assume a married couple is separated. One party lives in the marital home in Davis County, and the other party now lives in Utah County, where they just moved last month. The parties agree to meet in South Jordan to exchange some property. At the exchange, conflict arises, and an assault takes place.

The criminal case associated with this incident will be filed in the South Jordan Justice Court and will be prosecuted by the South Jordan prosecutor’s office. The criminal case would be filed in this court because it has jurisdiction over misdemeanor domestic violence cases within the physical boundaries of South Jordan. It does not matter where the alleged victim and alleged perpetrator live, work, or play. If the alleged incident happened in South Jordan, then it has physical jurisdiction to resolve the criminal case in its court.

It is quite common for DV cases to also result in a petition for a civil protective order. This is usually a request by the alleged victim (petitioner) for a protective order prohibiting the alleged perpetrator (respondent) from having contact with them. This type of case must be filed in a district (state) court, as only a district court has the authority to issue a civil protective order. However, with this type of case, the petition can be filed in either the district court where the petitioner lives, where the respondent lives, or where the alleged incident occurred. In our example, it could be filed in Davis County where the petitioner lives, South Jordan where the assault happened, or Utah County where the respondent lives.

When a DV offense occurs between a married couple, it sometimes ends in divorce. A divorce case begins when one party (petitioner) files for divorce and serves the papers on the other party (respondent). As with a civil protective order, a divorce petition must be filed in a district court—again, only a district court has the authority to decide a divorce case. The petitioner must file for divorce in the district court in the county where at least one of the two parties has resided for no less than the last three months.

Based on the example above, there are potentially three different cases that could be filed related to the DV incident:

  • The criminal case, which would have to be filed in South Jordan;
  • The petition for a civil protective order, which could be filed in South Jordan, Davis County, or Utah County; and
  • The divorce petition, which could only be filed in Davis County because the party who moved to Utah County has not lived there long enough to file for divorce.

It is important to understand which court you are in and why the court will or will not listen to what you have to say. Your criminal defense attorney should help you understand your entire situation, including any concerns or considerations about the location of your case. This is true even if they don’t represent you in any related civil cases. Understanding which court you are in, and the limits to what that court can decide and when will eliminate confusion and frustration while you work through the court system.

If you have a civil and/or criminal case pertaining to a family law matter, reach out to the seasoned trial lawyers at Pearson Butler. We accept cases throughout the state of Utah from our offices in Bountiful and South Jordan. Call (800) 265-2314 or contact us online.