Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

AGO 1961 No. 13 -
Attorney General John J. O'Connell


A warrant of arrest issued by a municipal judge of a city of the fourth class charging a violation of a town ordinance is not valid for service outside the corporate limits of the town.

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                                                                February 21, 1961

Honorable Hewitt A. Henry
Prosecuting Attorney
Thurston County
Olympia, Washington

                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 61-62 No. 13

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged you requested the opinion of this office on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

            Is a warrant of arrest issued by a municipal judge of a city of the fourth class charging a violation of town ordinance valid for service outside the corporate limits of the town?

            We answer this question in the negative.


            Municipal courts like justice courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, deriving their powers from the legislature.  Article IV, § 10, Washington Constitution, as amended by Amendment 28.  Also, 14 Am.Jur., Courts, §§ 6, 13 and 14.

            Our legislature has provided for municipal courts in cities of the fourth class by RCW 35.27.530, quoted in pertinent part as follows:

            "The police justice in addition to his powers as justice of the peace shall have exclusive jurisdiction over all offenses defined by any ordinance of the town and all other actions brought to enforce  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] or recover any license, penalty, or forfeiture declared or given by any ordinance with full power to forfeit bail, issue executions on bail bonds, and hear and determine all causes, civil or criminal, arising under any ordinance and pronounce judgment in accordance therewith: . . ."

            The general rule applicable to courts of limited jurisdiction is stated in 14 Am.Jur., Courts, § 169, as follows:

            "Courts created by statute and not by the Constitution are tribunals of special and limited jurisdiction only.  They can exercise only such powers as are directly conferred on them by legislative enactment and such as may be incidentally necessary to the execution of those powers.  Therefore, unless authority for the exercise of jurisdiction in a given case can be found in the statutes, given either expressly or by necessary implication, their proceedings are void; for the rule is that such a court can only take cognizance of such matters as are clearly within its jurisdiction."

            The foregoing statute, defining the jurisdiction of the town court, is silent as to the territorial limits within which the court may exercise its jurisdiction insofar as the service of process is concerned.  Moreover, our research has failed to reveal any other statute which appears to cover the subject.

            With respect to territorial limitations upon the exercise of jurisdiction by courts, 14 Am.Jur., Courts, § 223, states in part as follows:

            "It is a fundamental rule of international jurisprudence that every state or nation possesses an exclusive sovereignty and jurisdiction within its own territory.  A consequence of this maxim is that no state can by its laws and no court, which is only a creature of the state, can by its judgments or decrees directly bind or affect property or persons beyond the limits of that state.  In other words, a court created within and for a particular territory is bound in the exercise of its powers by the limits of such territory.  No process of any state court has any effect or efficiency beyond the boundaries of the state under the law of which it was issued. . . .

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            "The jurisdiction of certain courts within the state may be limited as to territory within the state, as, for example, to a certain county or district.  In such a case the rules governing jurisdiction are much the same as arise over the broader question of the limits of the state.  In other words, a court, the jurisdiction of which is limited to a county or district, cannot exercise jurisdiction beyond the county or district. . . ."

            Consistent with these general principles and in the absence of a statute to the contrary, this office has previously concluded that a warrant issued by a town judge charging a violation of municipal ordinance is without efficacy and of no force and effect outside the territorial limits of the town.  See Opinion No. 1786 dated April 8, 1927 to the then Supervisor of Municipal Corporations, a copy of which is herewith enclosed.  It is there pointed out that police judges of first and second class cities have state‑wide [[statewide]]jurisdiction for issuance of process (RCW 35.22.490 and 35.23.610).

            By letter dated February 16, 1954 to the Prosecuting Attorney of Grant County (copy enclosed) this office advised that since "a police judge of a third class city does not have state‑wide [[statewide]]jurisdiction . . . [w]e seriously doubt the validity of a warrant served outside the boundaries of a municipality if the criminal complaint concerns a violation of a municipal ordinance. . . ."

            It is also significant to note that in § 174, Laws of 1889, p. 214, which provided for elected police justices in municipal corporations of the fourth class, our legislature specifically stated:

            ". . . All civil or criminal proceedings before such police justice,under and by authority of this act, shall be governed and regulated by the general laws of the state relating to justices of the peace and to their practices and jurisdiction, and shall be subject to review in the court of the properdistrict by certiorari or appeal the same as in other cases. . . ."  (Emphasis supplied.)

            While the underscored language would seem to clearly indicate that the territorial jurisdiction of the town police judge was  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] at that time the same as that of the justice of the peace; viz., county-wide, such language was removed by our legislature in enacting chapter 70, Laws of 1921, a one‑section act which provided for the appointment of town police justices by the mayor and made particular provision for the procedure to be followed in civil actions.

            The deletion of this language in 1921 would support the conclusion that our legislature did not intend that town police judges have territorial jurisdiction co-extensive [[coextensive]]with that of justices of the peace in criminal cases arising under town ordinance.

            It is hoped that the foregoing will prove helpful to you.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General