Easy? Safe and fun? Law-abiding? If you know the local laws that apply in the city of Surprise, it can help make your summer in the city all that and more.
Today’s issue of “From the Bench” reviews the types of activities, conduct, and events that are regulated by the Surprise Municipal Code, and the potential consequences one may face for violating the city’s laws. As always, this article is purely informational. For legal advice on any matter, consult with an attorney.
Most people know that the laws enacted by the Arizona Legislature or passed by the state’s initiative or referendum process (which are then codified in the Arizona Revised Statutes), apply statewide. But did you also know that each locality has authority to pass laws that only apply within its specific jurisdiction?
In Maricopa County there are 27 cities and towns, and each one likely has its own municipal code. The city of Surprise is no exception. The Surprise Municipal Code contains ordinances that regulate such diverse subjects as alcoholic beverages, animals, businesses, curfews, firearms, fireworks, land maintenance, noise and nuisance, parking, public conduct in parks, recreational marijuana, special events, traffic and vehicles and a whole lot more.
To learn about these areas of the local law, you can review the Surprise Municipal Code at library.municode.com/az/surprise/codes/municipal_code or at the link under the City Council tab at surpriseaz.gov. The code is divided into chapters, each of which addresses a different subject. If you do review a particular section, consider reading any related sections, including definitions that may be provided.
For example, if you keep animals, including pets, livestock, or fowl, consider reviewing Chapter 10, entitled Animals. If you own firearms, BB guns, or other weapons, consider various portions of Chapter 34, entitled Offenses and Miscellaneous Provisions.
In fact, Chapter 34 contains laws on a number of important topics, including property rights and public safety; use and sale of fireworks; discharge of firearms within the city limits; public peace and order; curfew; noise violations; behavior at athletic contests and venues; recreational marijuana; and much more.
If you enjoy the city’s parks, consider the laws in Chapter 38, Parks and Recreation. There, you’ll find a list of activities that are regulated in the city’s parks (including bicycle riding, flying model airplanes or sailing model boats, picnicking, swimming, fishing, and playing various games or sports to name a few). Chapter 38 also lists general and miscellaneous rules of conduct in the parks, including things that may only be done in designated areas or may not be done at all; restrictions on alcoholic beverages; rules on fireworks, glass and weapons in parks; when permits are required; rules regarding animals in parks, including those that apply in the city’s dog parks; and yes, much more.
With respect to homes and businesses in Surprise, the code prohibits a property owner from allowing or having a condition on his or her property that constitutes blight, including trash and debris, over height weeds and grass, improper parking of inoperable, unlicensed, or unregistered vehicles and more. For the maintenance, beautification and safe enjoyment of both commercial and residential areas in Surprise, the city has a Code Enforcement Division which may investigate and issue civil charges against property owners for these and other alleged violations of the City’s Code.
The code also regulates parking, and has a specific law (Section 54-89) that regulates how and where one may park their vehicles within the city, including on neighborhood streets and in front of residential properties and driveways.
The city’s ordinances are the law. They apply to everyone while they are within the city limits — whether they are living in, working in, visiting, or simply driving through Surprise at the time — and even if neighboring cities and towns regulate the subject differently or not at all. Like other laws, Surprise’s ordinances apply even to those who may be unaware of the particular law, and some laws can apply even to those who did not intend the violation to happen.
A couple of examples may help illustrate these principles. Until the statewide law which prohibited a driver’s physical use of a cellphone went into effect in January 2021, that conduct was already prohibited in Surprise by the city’s local “hands-free cell phone use” ordinance.
So, theoretically, before 2021 a person may have been able to legally use a hand-held cell phone while driving in a neighboring city or town, but as soon as they crossed into Surprise it was against the law to do so, even if they were unaware of Surprise’s “hands-free” ordinance. In enacting the 2021 statewide ban, the Legislature voided any local laws regulating the topic, including Surprise’s law. Now, the statewide law applies (with exceptions) to all drivers throughout Arizona.
For another example, people are sometimes surprised to find out that it is against city law for one’s dog to be off-leash while off their fenced or gated property. The city’s dog-at-large ordinance says that no person shall “intentionally, recklessly, or negligently” allow a dog that they keep, harbor, or maintain, to be at large (“at large” is also defined). As written, this ordinance might apply even if the dog was in a gated backyard and, unknown to the owner, managed to unlatch the gate or jump over the wall because the dog is, well, just that “good.”
Canine parkour aside, for the safety of people and animals, dogs should be safely enclosed or supervised such that they are unlikely to be able to unlatch a gate or otherwise let themselves out. If a dog does get out “by accident,” and if the facts show either recklessness or negligence on the part of the dog’s keeper, that keeper might be found liable for violating the dog-at-large ordinance even if they did not intentionally allow the dog to be at large.
What happens when a person is charged with a violation of the city code? Anyone charged with violating a city ordinance has the same rights one has when charged with violating a state law, including the right to hire an attorney and to have a hearing or trial to contest the charges. The further extent of the person’s rights depends on whether the charges are criminal or civil offenses.
Surprise’s code designates whether particular categories of violations are criminal offenses, civil violations, or civil traffic violations. Certain charges may be cited as (or, depending on the circumstances, may later be treated as) either criminal or civil.
Generally, when charges are issued for a violation of the city code, a court date is set for arraignment. If the complaint is for civil charges only, the defendant may choose to resolve some or all of the charges before the arraignment date (often, without coming to court), by paying the specified fines and fees.
If any of the charges are criminal offenses (or a civil charge that has not been resolved by the court date), the defendant must appear at the court on the specified date. If a defendant fails to appear for their court date (or does not file a timely request for a new court date), a default would be entered on any civil charges, with fines and fees imposed, and an arrest warrant would be issued on any criminal charges.
A defendant who is convicted of or found responsible for violating a city ordinance faces an array of potential consequences. The code sets a mandatory minimum fine of $100 for each violation (whether civil or criminal), with a potential maximum fine in the thousands of dollars. If the offense is a criminal charge or a civil traffic violation, an additional fee of $29.19 is required.
Perhaps most significantly, if one is convicted of any criminal charge, in addition to monetary penalties the sentence could include jail, probation, restitution, and any other sentencing provision allowed under state law.
This article is an overview of some of the categories of city ordinances that apply to those while they are living in, working in, or visiting Surprise. But I hope it has piqued your curiosity about the local law, and a desire to learn more about the city of Surprise.
From all of us at Surprise City Court, we hope this information will help you have a happy, healthy, safe, and law-abiding summer in the city of Surprise.
Editor’s Note: Judge Catherine Gaudreau is the associate judge for the city of Surprise.
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