ordinance | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

An ordinance is a local law or rule set by a city, town, or county government to regulate behavior within its jurisdiction.

In simple terms, an ordinance is like a law but at a local level. While federal and state laws cover the whole country or an entire state, ordinances focus on specific rules for a particular city, town, or county. These can deal with many issues, including property, public safety, and community welfare.

Why Do We Have Ordinances?

Above all, ordinances help communities run smoothly. For instance, a city may pass an ordinance that requires people to pick up after their pets. This helps keep public areas clean and enjoyable for everyone. Additionally, ordinances can help police keep the peace. If a law exists that stops people from playing loud music after a certain hour, the police have the power to enforce it. In other words, ordinances make it easier for community members to know what’s acceptable and what’s not.

How Are They Created?

If you think of a city or town like a mini-country, then the city council acts like its government. Usually, a council member or the mayor will propose an ordinance. Then, the council will discuss it, make any changes, and vote. If it passes, it becomes a part of the local law. Accordingly, police can then enforce it, just like any other law.

Types of Ordinances

There are generally two types: general and special. General ordinances affect the whole community. An example would be a law that sets a speed limit on local roads. Special ordinances, on the other hand, focus on a specific issue or area. If a particular park has problems with litter, a special law might address that issue specifically.

Ordinances in Criminal Justice

In the context of criminal justice, ordinances play a crucial role. Police officers enforce them, and local courts interpret them. Breaking an ordinance can result in fines, community service, or even arrest. For example, if a town has an ordinance against graffiti, then a police officer can arrest someone caught spray-painting a wall.

How Do They Differ from Other Laws?

After all, an ordinance is a type of law, so how does it differ from state or federal laws? First, ordinances are easier to change or repeal. If the community doesn’t like a certain one, the city council can quickly change it. Secondly, such a law only applies within the specific geographical area of the local government that passed it.

Controversial Ordinances

Not all ordinances are universally loved. Some might argue that certain ordinances target specific groups unfairly. For example, some cities have ordinances that make it illegal to feed the homeless in public places. Critics argue that such laws are inhumane and target vulnerable populations.

Your Rights

Remember, just because an ordinance is a law doesn’t mean it can infringe on your basic human rights. If you think an ordinance goes too far, you can challenge it in court. Whether you win or lose, this is an important aspect of the democratic process.


In summary, an ordinance is a local law that helps govern a specific geographical area, like a city or town. It can deal with everything from public safety to community welfare. Both the police and the courts play roles in enforcing and interpreting these rules.

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Last Modified: 08/24/2023

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