Florida's Legal
System 101

Florida’s Legal System 101 covers what you need to know about the legal process and justice system in Florida. From the interworkings of the Florida civil and criminal court systems to questions about criminal charges, it’s important to understand how the legal system in Florida works.

Courts in Florida are divided into county courts, administrative courts, circuit courts, district courts of appeal, and the Florida Supreme Court. Trials are held in county courts, administrative courts, and circuit courts. If a party believes a trial court decided a case in error, the party may ask that the case be reviewed by a higher court. This is called an appeal. Most county and circuit court appeals are heard by the district courts of appeal (DCAs). There are a few appeals, including administrative matters, noncriminal infractions and noncriminal hearings, that are heard by the circuit courts.

In addition to state courts, a lawsuit may be brought in the federal court system in cases involving or arising under federal law or for large claims involving citizens of different states. Federal district courts are the trial courts in the federal system, and federal circuit courts are the federal courts of appeal. For more information, refer to Title V, Florida Statutes.

Cases involving misdemeanor criminal offenses (which are punishable by fines and/or county jail up to one year), traffic offenses, and civil cases where the amount claimed is under $30,000 are handled in the county court. Disputes under $8,000 are handled in the small claims division of the county court.

  • A county court judge must be an attorney for five years (except if the population is less than 40,000 in that county), in good standing with The Florida Bar, a resident of the county where he or she is to serve and is usually elected by the public to serve a six-year term. A county court judge may be re-elected.
  • County court judges may be elected to an open seat or appointed by the Governor in circumstances when the judicial vacancy occurs on a date other than at the expiration of the current (retiring or resigning) judge’s term.
  • When there is an election for an open seat, the judge is elected for a six-year term. When there is an appointment by the Governor, the judge is up for re-election on the next general election ballot after a full year after the appointment.

The circuit court hears an array of cases ranging from felony criminal offenses, matters involving property of a person who has died (probate), guardianships, juvenile matters, civil cases where the amount claimed is more than $30,000, divorces, and most actions involving real estate.

Cases involving felony criminal offenses, punishable by fines and/or prison of at least 1 year and 1 day. Appeals from many county court decisions and from final orders of local government code enforcement boards are heard by the Circuit Courts.

  • A circuit court judge must be an attorney for five years, in good standing with The Florida Bar, a resident of the circuit where he or she is to serve and is usually elected by the public to serve a six-year term. A circuit court judge may be re-elected.
  • Circuit court judges may be elected to an open seat or appointed by the Governor in circumstances when the judicial vacancy occurs on a date other than at the expiration of the current (retiring or resigning) judge’s term.
  • When there is an election for an open seat, the judge is elected for a six-year term. When there is an appointment by the Governor, the judge is up for re-election on the next general election ballot after a full year after the appointment.

DOAH Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) preside over a variety of cases that impact the entire state of Florida, one or more regions of Florida, or cases that can substantially impact the lives of particular individuals. For example, ALJs hear cases involving employment discrimination, licensure discipline involving numerous professions, environmental and land use disputes, exceptional education disputes, Baker Act cases, birth-related neurological injury cases, and medical malpractice arbitration proceedings. Additionally, ALJs travel to all parts of Florida every month to preside over child support cases.

DOAH also houses the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims for those individuals who have a worker’s compensation claim.

  • The Administration Commission, consisting of the governor and the cabinet, appoints a director to head DOAH, and the appointee must be confirmed by the Senate. The director serves as DOAH’s chief judge and can appoint a deputy chief judge. The chief judge and the deputy chief judge have administrative duties and conduct formal hearings. The chief judge is charged with the duty to hire the ALJs.
  • Section 120.65, Florida Statutes (2017) requires that all ALJs be members of The Florida Bar with a minimum of five years of experience practicing law.
  • The minimum qualifications for ALJs are identical to the minimum requirements for circuit court judges. Much like the federal court system in Florida, DOAH’s internal organization is based on geography as the cases are divided between three Districts: Northern, Middle, and Southern.

Each court can hear appeals from final judgments of lower courts, it can review certain non-final orders, and by general law it has the power to review final actions taken by state agencies. Additionally each district court has the authority to issue extraordinary writs as necessary to perform its duties.

  • There are five district courts of appeal throughout the state.
  • District court judges are appointed by the governor from a list of nominated qualified attorneys; each must be an attorney for five years in good standing with The Florida Bar and a resident of the district where he or she is to serve. District judges are subject to retention election every six years. This means that regardless of when the judge is appointed, each judge’s name appears on the next general election ballot, and the public may vote to retain or remove that judge from office.

The Florida Supreme Court’s jurisdiction is limited by the Florida Constitution. This means it can only decide certain kinds of cases. The Court must review final orders imposing death sentences, decide cases involving the discipline of attorneys, review district court decisions declaring a Florida statute or provision of the Florida Constitution unconstitutional, bond validations, certain other state agency orders, and may review cases involving disagreements of district courts of appeal on the same issue of law. The Court has discretionary review of most matters, and few cases referred to the Court will be heard. The Court may render advisory opinions to the governor when asked. All Florida attorneys are subject to the authority of the Court should someone file a complaint with The Florida Bar regarding an attorney’s conduct.

  • There are seven Florida Supreme Court Justices and each is appointed by the governor from a list of nominated qualified attorneys.
  • Each Justice must be an attorney for ten years in good standing with the Florida Bar.
  • A Justice may serve until the mandatory retirement age of 75.
  • The governor must appoint a justice from each of the five geographical areas that contain the district courts of appeal, and two justices may be selected from a state-wide pool of qualified applicants.
  • Florida Supreme Court Justices are subject to retention election. Regardless of when the Justice is appointed, each Justice’s name appears on the next general election ballot, and the public may vote to retain or remove that Justice from office.

An attorney is not required for an individual to file a case in court. If the claim is based on a written document, you should bring it with you when you file a claim. The Clerk of Court’s office has simple forms for you to complete if the amount involved is less than $30,000. However, it is usually best to talk with an attorney before handling a case in court yourself.

The length of time you have to file a lawsuit varies by the type of case. If you have a possible claim or want to file a lawsuit, consult an attorney as soon as possible to protect your rights. The Florida Bar and local bar associations operate lawyer referral services to assist you in finding an attorney for your special needs.

A police officer can ask to speak to you at any time. The duration of the encounter and whether your response is voluntary or mandatory differs depending on the nature of the stop. Generally, there are three types of interactions with the police:

  1. Consensual voluntary encounter - If a police officer stops you without a warrant, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion that you committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime and speaks with you, you may refuse to speak with the officer and walk away. In reality, it is often difficult to tell whether the officer is conducting an investigation based on the question he or she asks you; therefore, it is a good idea to be polite and ask the officer, ‘Am I free to go?’ If the officer says ‘yes,’ then you are free to leave.
  2. Investigative stop - If the police officer has reasonable, articulable suspicion that you have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime in violation of any city, county, state, or federal law, the officer may conduct a brief investigatory stop. During this stop, you are not free to leave and the officer may temporarily detain you for as long as reasonably necessary to ascertain your identity and to conduct an investigation and/or dispel his or her suspicion. The officer is required to detain you in the immediate vicinity of the encounter. The officer may also frisk you or pat you down if he or she has a reasonable fear for the officer’s safety or for the safety of others.
  3. Arrest - In order to put you under arrest, the police officer must have probable cause you have committed a crime. When a police officer significantly deprives you of your freedom of movement or detains you in order to question you about a crime or take you into custody, you are legally considered under arrest. You could be under arrest even though the officer has not used the word "arrest.” In order to be considered under arrest, it must be evident that, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in your position would feel that you are not free to leave or end the encounter with police.

If you are arrested, the police officer may search your person and the area within your immediate presence for the purpose of protecting the officer from attack, preventing you from escaping, or discovering evidence of the crime.

It is important that you make sure the person at the door is a law enforcement officer. Once the officer has provided sufficient identification, he or she may ask permission to enter your home. Unless the officer has a warrant, you have the right to refuse the officer access to your home. Nevertheless, you should politely ask the officer why the officer has come to your home because he/she may be conducting an investigation or may have information regarding problems or concerns in your neighborhood or the safety of your family or property.

The failure to answer questions posed by the police, in and of itself, does not provide probable cause to arrest you. Other relevant conduct or circumstances may lead an officer to conduct an investigative stop. Keep in mind that section 901.36, Florida Statutes, provides that giving false information to the police during a valid investigative stop or during an arrest is a misdemeanor. Running from or fleeing the police, without some additional suspicion that a crime has been committed and that you are the person that committed the crime, will not be sufficient probable cause to sustain an arrest. However, Florida’s Uniform Traffic Control Law provides that under certain circumstances, it is unlawful to flee or to willfully fail or refuse to comply with an order of a law enforcement officer. In reality, police officers have to make split-second decisions while investigating allegations that a crime has been committed. Therefore, when a person runs from or flees the police in any way, it is often interpreted to mean the person has something to hide, which may cause the police to be more interested in asking that person questions regarding the allegations that a crime has been committed.

  • Be polite. Remain calm.
  • Avoid sudden movements. Keep your hands where the officer can see them.
  • Comply with the officer’s lawful requests.
  • Report any inappropriate behavior by the officer to authorities after the encounter has concluded.

In November of 2018, Florida voters approved a Constitutional Amendment called Marsy’s Law, which gave victims of a crime certain rights during the criminal proceedings including the right to prevent disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim’s family; the right to confer with the prosecutor on any settlement offers; and the right to be noticed for all hearings. Ask the officer for more information and be sure to read any victim pamphlets the officer provides to you to learn more about these rights.

You are arrested when a law enforcement officer takes you into custody or takes away your freedom of movement in any significant way, in order to hold you to answer for a criminal offense. Police officers, under Florida law, are required to identify themselves and to advise you that you are under arrest and the reason for your arrest, unless you try to flee or forcibly resist before the officer can give you this information. You may be under arrest even though no one has actually used the word “arrest”. The fact that you have been deprived of your freedom of movement in some significant manner may amount to an arrest. Ordinarily, private citizens do not have power to arrest another citizen in Florida, but may assist police officers in making arrests if the officer feels such assistance is necessary.

If arrested, you can expect to be searched for weapons by the police and taken to jail. If questioned by police, you should be told of your rights under the United States Constitution, in what is commonly called Miranda warnings. It is important to realize that you do not have to have your rights read to you if the police officer does not ask you any questions.

Some important rights to remember are:

  • The right to remain silent;
  • The right to have an attorney present WHILE being questioned;
  • The right to stop answering questions at any time, even if you have started answering questions;
  • The right to know the crime or crimes with which you have been charged;
  • The right to know the identity of the police officers who are dealing with you.
  • The right to communicate by telephone with your attorney, family, friends, or bondsperson as soon as practicable after you are brought into the police station (The police have a right to complete their booking procedures before you are allowed to use the telephone).

If you do not wish to answer police questions, you must say that you want to remain silent. If in doubt, simply do not speak. To get your right to an attorney, you must say that you want an attorney to represent you. As soon as you say you want to remain silent or request an attorney, all police questioning must stop.

You should always remember your right to remain silent. Officers are serious when they tell you that anything you say can and will be used as evidence against you in court. Probably the most common mistake made by anyone following an arrest is the decision to answer police questions. Confessions make up a significant portion of evidence in all convictions. You also have the right to have an attorney present during police questioning. This does not mean the officers have to stop their investigation to wait for the arrival of an attorney, but they cannot ask you questions without an attorney being present, if you ask for one. Once you have identified yourself to police, you may refuse to make any statement, or you can discuss the case with anyone. Keep in mind, any information you give can be used as evidence against you in court. Law enforcement officers cannot force or threaten you into answering questions and cannot offer you anything in exchange for your answering questions. If you begin answering police questions but later change your mind, you may always stop answering questions. However, you must be clear to the police that you are exercising your right to remain silent.

If you are arrested and placed in jail, an initial appearance, usually called “first appearance,” before a judge must occur within 24 hours of your arrest. At first appearance, you will be told of the criminal charges against you, bail will be set, and you will be asked if you can afford an attorney.

If you cannot afford an attorney, the judge will appoint an attorney to represent you. If the judge does not offer to appoint an attorney, ask for one. Unless you hire an attorney, you do not have an attorney until the judge appoints one to assist you.

Bail is designed to guarantee your appearance in court for a criminal charge, and is what allows you to get out of jail after you are arrested.

Unless charged with a crime punishable by life imprisonment or death, every person charged with a crime is entitled to pretrial release on reasonable conditions. If no conditions of release can reasonably protect the community from risk of physical harm to persons, assure your presence at trial, or assure the integrity of the judicial process, you may be denied pretrial release. Bail is the type of pretrial release that involves using money to get out of jail.

When the court “sets bail”, it is requiring that a specific amount of money be deposited with the clerk of the court or sheriff to allow you out of jail. This is also known as “setting bond.” Most bonds are eligible to be posted by a bondsman. Typically, a bondsman will charge a 10% fee of the total bond amount. For example, if the court sets a $5,000 cash or professional bond, you would have the option of either posting the full $5,000 in cash, which would be placed in the court registry, or you could pay a bondsman $500. In either case you would be bonded out of jail. Usually a member of the family must get the money, give the money to the clerk or sheriff and then show the receipt in order to get you released. Private bail bondspersons can be called from the jail. Money paid to a bondsman will not be given back to you at the end of your case; it is considered the fee for the bondsman. It is basically how the bondsman makes a living. If you deposit a cash bond into the court registry, that money, minus any court costs or fees (if you enter a plea or are found guilty), will be returned to you at the close of your case. If you fail to appear in court for your court dates, an arrest warrant will be issued and your bond will be forfeited.

Yes. For example, if you falsely apply for an I.D., unlawfully spray a fire extinguisher, falsely report child abuse, possess an illegal drug, or commit vandalism that causes more than $1,000 damage, you may be charged with a felony.

Yes. This usually happens for very serious crimes. The age of the person charged plays a role in this determination as well, but it is important to remember that Florida is one of the leading states in the country in charging juveniles as adults.

Yes. It is a common misconception that juvenile records are automatically wiped clean once someone turns 18. All prior criminal acts, including juvenile criminal offenses, may be considered for adult sentencing purposes. Even if your juvenile criminal record is not used against you officially for adult sentencing purposes, prosecutors will often take into consideration someone’s entire prior criminal history when deciding how to treat someone who is arrested of a crime as an adult.

Maybe, depending on your charge, and whether you have ever been convicted of a crime. Sealing your record only restricts access by the general public to an arrest record. Expunction totally removes the record of an arrest. In Florida, you can generally only seal or expunge one arrest record; you cannot remove the record of multiple unrelated arrests. Whether you are eligible to seal or expunge depends on the type of criminal charge and what happened with the criminal charge when you went to court. If you have been convicted of a crime, any crime, then you are unfortunately ineligible to seal or expunge an arrest record.

Even if you seal or expunge an arrest record, it is important to keep in mind that government agencies may still be able to access your criminal history record. If you are interested in joining the military, law enforcement, or certain professions (medicine, law, teaching), you should assume your arrest record will be discovered. For more information on sealing or expunging your criminal record, please visit the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s website.

It depends on the ID itself. If you present another’s true ID, with their permission, as your own, you risk a second degree misdemeanor. Penalties for such a crime can include a maximum jail sentence of up to 60 days and/or 6 months’ probation, and a $500.00 fine. If you possess a forged (altered), counterfeit (falsely produced), or stolen ID, you risk a third degree felony. Penalties for these offenses can include a maximum of 5 years in prison and/or on probation, and a $5,000.00 fine. Also, giving a fake ID to a law enforcement officer can be a crime, if the officer has detained you and actually runs the name you give him/her through a computer database.