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A summary offence, also known as a petty crime, is a criminal act in some common law jurisdictions that can be proceeded with summarily, without the right to a jury trial and/or indictment (required for an indictable offence).


United States

In the United States, "there are certain minor or petty offenses that may be proceeded against summarily, and without a jury"[1][2] and which are codified in 18 U.S.C. § 19. Any crime punishable by more than six months imprisonment must have some means for a jury trial.[3] Contempt of court is considered a prerogative of the court, as "the requirement of a jury does not apply to 'contempts committed in disobedience of any lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command entered in any suit or action brought or prosecuted in the name of, or on behalf of, the United States[.]'"[4]

Some states (Virginia) provide that in all offenses must at some point grant to the defendant a jury trial if they request it, meaning that one could obtain a jury trial in some states even for a parking ticket. Summary offenses have a length of time for which they are valid on a state's recordkeeping. In most states, summary offences last 5–7 years.



There have been criticisms over the practice. In particular, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in a dissent that "[i]t is high time, in my judgment, to wipe out root and branch the judge-invented and judge-maintained notion that judges can try criminal contempt cases without a jury."[5]


In Canada summary offences are referred to as summary conviction offences. As in other jurisdictions summary conviction offences are considered less serious than indictable offences because they are punishable by shorter prison sentences and smaller fines. These offences appear both in the federal laws of Canada and in the legislation of Canada's provinces and territories. For summary conviction offences that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government (which includes all criminal law), section 787 of the Criminal Code of Canada specifies that, unless another punishment is provided for by law, the maximum penalty for a summary conviction offence is a sentence of 6 months of imprisonment, a fine of $5000 or both. Section 786 of the Code has a statute that prohibits persons from being tried for a summary conviction offence more than 6 months after the offence was committed unless both the prosecutor and defendant agree otherwise.

As a matter of practical effect, some common differences between summary conviction and indictable offences are provided below.

Summary Conviction Offences
Accused must be charged with a Summary Conviction within 6 months after the act happened. Note that the Statute of Limitations does not apply to the Criminal Code. Limitation periods are set out in the Criminal Code directly.
The police can arrest under Summary Conviction without an arrest warrant.
Police need to have seen the accused commit the offence before they can charge under Summary Conviction.
Accused does not have to submit fingerprints when charged under Summary Conviction.
Appeals of Summary Conviction Offences go first to the highest trial court within the jurisdiction (e.g. Provincial Superior Court in Alberta is the Court of Queen’s Bench).
After Prov. Superior Court a further appeal would go to the Provincial Court of Appeal (e.g. the Court of Appeal of Alberta, and then finally to the Supreme Court of Canada, but as a practical matter very few Summary Convictions are ever heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Accused convicted under Summary Conviction are eligible to apply for pardon after 3 years.
Almost always heard first in a provincial court (although some exceptions apply, such as a summary conviction offence included for trial with an indictable offence).

compared with

Indictable Offences
There is no time limit to when charges can be laid, e.g. an accused can be charged 20 years after an act has occurred. The exception to this point is treason, which has a 3-year limitation period.
Police require a warrant to arrest under an Indictable Offence (warrants are required to be signed by judge).
Police only need to have reasonable and probable grounds to believe that the accused has committed the offence (as opposed to having directly witnessed the act as in a Summary Conviction offence).
Accused does have to submit fingerprints when required to appear to answer to an indictable offence.
Appeals always go to the Provincial Court of Appeal first, and then on to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Accused convicted under an Indictable Offence can apply for pardon after 5 years.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, trials for summary offences are heard in one of a number of types of lower court. For England and Wales this is the Magistrates' Court. In Scotland, it is the Sheriff Court or District Court, depending on the offence (the latter being primarily for the most minor of offences). Northern Ireland has its own Magistrates' Court system (see Courts of Northern Ireland).


  1. ^ Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540 (1888)
  2. ^ Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968)
  3. ^ Lewis v. United States, 518 U.S. 322 (1996)
  4. ^ United States v. Barnett, 376 U.S. 681 (1964)
  5. ^ Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540 (1888)

See also


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