Michigan Trial Courts: Circuit, District and Probate Courts

Many people are not aware of the fact that Michigan trial courts include the circuit, district, and probate courts.  All of the courts serve different purposes, however the district court is the one most are familiar with and is often referred to as “the people’s court.”  As far as the trial court with the broadest power in the state of Michigan, the circuit court reigns supreme.  Probate court, naturally, is where issues involving wills, trusts, and  estates are handled, along with other issues, which we’ll discuss below.

Michigan Circuit Court

Some of the court actions addressed in Michigan circuit courts include garnishments, seizure of property, domestic relations, name change, personal protection, order for testing of infectious diseases, and emancipation of a minor.  In regards to criminal issues, the circuit court is also where felony criminal cases or civil cases valued at more than $25,000 are handled.  For criminal purposes, the circuit court handles those cases in which an individual is charged with a felony crime, which in simple terms is a crime that may, if the individual is convicted, result in a prison term of longer than one year.  Currently there are 57 circuit courts in the state of Michigan, located in various counties including Wayne County in which there are 61 judges who preside over circuit court matters.


Felony offenses are the most serious and include certain drug, sex, theft, and manslaughter offenses along with many other types of crimes.  While a felony case is initially filed in district court, in cases where it is determined probable cause exists the case will be transferred to circuit court for arraignment and trial.  Felony crimes are those generally punished with prison terms of more than one year to life in prison, along with fines, a criminal record, and other consequences depending on the nature of the offense and facts of the case.

District Courts in Michigan

In terms of criminal charges, Michigan district courts typically handle misdemeanor offenses, or those considered less serious and that punish defendants found guilty by a maximum of one year in jail.  Currently there are about 100 district courts located across the state.

District courts are where cases involving reckless driving, vandalism, shoplifting, assault and battery, and first or second DUI offenses and disorderly conduct cases are handled.  Prostitution, trespassing, and other common traffic or non-traffic misdemeanor cases are usually handled by the district court nearest to where the criminal offense took place.

Common cases addressed in district court include those involving drunk driving charges such as OWI (operating while intoxicated), OWVI (operating while visibly impaired), and underage drinking, or those who operate a vehicle and who are under 21 years of age with any amount of alcohol in their systems.  Driving on a suspended license and possession of a small amount of marijuana are other misdemeanor offenses which may be tried in district courts.

District court proceedings begin with the defendant being arraigned by the judge who also sets bail, presides over the trial, and pronounces sentencing for the defendant.

Generally speaking, those found guilty of a misdemeanor offense in district court will face one year or less of jail time, along with fines.  In addition, those determined guilty of most traffic misdemeanors will have points added to their driving records by the Secretary of State, as the district courts do not have the authority to assign or waive points.

Michigan Probate Courts

With 78 probate courts located throughout Michigan, issues regarding juvenile matters, mental health, estate, wills, and trusts matters are addressed in these courts by more than 100 judges.  Effective January 1, 1998 probate court became part of Family Court, and is divided into two divisions including estates and juvenile.  Juvenile delinquency cases are handled by probate courts, which may result in the court ordering day treatment programs, intensive probation, and other programs specified by the court.

The majority of criminal cases in Michigan are handled in circuit or district court, depending on whether the offense is charged as a misdemeanor or felony.  For more information regarding Michigan trial courts and the criminal justice process, contact a criminal defense attorney with Grabel & Associates.

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