Frequently Asked Questions

The following frequently asked questions come from the Kentucky County Attorneys Association’s Frequently Asked Questions page.

Back to top

Exactly what does a county attorney do?

The county attorney’s office performs many services and duties. The most obvious responsibility is the prosecution of all violations of criminal law within the jurisdiction of the district court; that includes all misdemeanors, such as DUI offenses, other traffic violations, assault, and theft of less than $500.

County attorneys have prosecutorial jurisdiction over juvenile issues, which include criminal acts, dependency, neglect, and abuse. County attorneys also handle extraditions and oversee mental disability cases.

In district court, county attorneys handle felony preliminary hearings. In circuit court, county attorneys prosecute to recover delinquent taxes, defend and file lawsuits on behalf of the county.

In addition to these prosecutorial duties, county attorneys serve as counsel to their counties’ fiscal courts, districts, commissions, boards, and county officials in all legal issues (excluding Fayette County). For example, if a new easement is to be constructed, county attorneys have to advise our elected officials on the county’s rights as a landowner. Where does our land end and someone else’s begin? If a county government or agency is sued, the county attorney advises elected officials and defends the county’s position in court.

Beyond these duties, many county attorneys choose to take on additional responsibilities to help their communities, such as collecting cold checks on behalf of merchants and businesses, delinquent property taxes for their counties, and delinquent child support payments for parents.

Back to top

What types of cases does a county attorney prosecute?

Many people refer to county attorneys as the public’s first line of defense in our judicial system. That’s because county attorneys come in contact with practically all criminals in our court system. County attorneys handle many types of cases: DUI, domestic violence, child abuse, all juvenile crime, traffic violations, misdemeanor theft, and assault–in other words every criminal and misdemeanor that is heard in district court.

Back to top

What is the county attorney’s role in domestic violence cases?

In addition to prosecuting those accused of domestic violence, county attorneys can help victims in emergency situations by helping them obtain emergency protective orders (EPOs), which offer short-term protection against further violence and abuse. EPOs are initiated in family court.

Family members and unmarried couples who live together are eligible for this protection, which can include restraining the abuser from future contact and direction to move out of the residence. The order is good for 14 days, and a hearing must be scheduled during that time. If the court finds enough evidence of abuse, it may issue a domestic violence order or other actions to prevent future violence. The order is good for up the three years. Violation of the order may result in contempt of court or an arrest.

Back to top

Why do county attorneys collect bad checks?

Although there are many check collection agencies, only county attorneys have the power to prosecute those who repeatedly write bad checks.

At the request of the merchant, the county attorney’s office will issue a letter to the writer of the bad check to advise the person that the check was not valid.

If the person makes the check good within a certain time, he or she must pay a fee to the county attorney to compensate the office for the service. If the check writer does not pay the merchant, then the case may be prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the amount of the check. (Writing bad checks for more than $500 is considered a felony.)

The collection of bad checks is a voluntary service that most county attorneys provide to their counties.

Back to top

How does a county attorney go about collecting delinquent real estate taxes?

In each county, the sheriff is responsible for the collection of property taxes. The sheriff’s goal is to get at least 95 percent of the people to pay their property taxes on time.

Once the property tax bills become delinquent, they are turned over to the county attorney to try to collect them on behalf of the county and state. Although collecting 5 percent or less of the county’s property taxes may not seem like much, county attorneys across Kentucky collect millions of dollars in delinquent property taxes each year.

In an attempt to collect the delinquent taxes, county attorneys send written notices to those who have neglected to pay. If the taxpayer demonstrates that he or she is willing to pay, but is just short of funds, an installment plan can usually be arranged.

If all of these attempts to collect fail, the county attorney, as a last resort, must file suit against those who refuse to pay. The suit places a lien on the property until the tax bill is paid, or the property can be sold to pay the bill.

The vast majority of county attorneys collect delinquent real estate taxes, but there are a few county attorneys that do not have that duty.

Back to top

What role does the county attorney play in collecting delinquent child support payments?

Most county attorneys contract annually with the Cabinet for Families and Children to collect delinquent child support payments in their counties. Even if a county attorney does not collect delinquent child support payments, he or she still prosecutes those who refuse to support their children.

While collection of overdue child support payments requires considerable time, many county attorneys find it quite satisfying to help children in need.

Most often, parents pay willingly, and the county attorneys’ offices do not have to become involved.

But there are times when some will refuse to pay. That’s when the delinquent parents must deal with the legal consequences–in either civil or criminal court.

In civil court, the custodial parent can sue for child support owed. In criminal court, the delinquent parent also can be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony. If the parent owes less than $1,000, he or she can be charged with nonsupport, a misdemeanor charge carrying up to a $500 fine and/or one year in jail. If the delinquent parent owes more than $1,000, he or she will be charged with flagrant nonsupport, a felony charge that increases the penalty to one to five years in the state penitentiary.

In addition, the delinquent parent still will be required to pay the overdue child support and subsequent payments as they become due and will find himself or herself back in court for failing to do so.

Back to top

What role does a county attorney play in disability hearings?

County attorneys are the attorneys who handle disability hearings in district court. It is their role to ensure that there is a need for guardianship.

Disability hearings are held when someone, usually a close friend or relative, files a petition for guardianship over a person because of medical or mental conditions. A jury can decide to grant full or partial guardianship over personal affairs, financial affairs or both.

When people are under guardianship, they lose many of the rights we take for granted. They can’t spend their own money; they no longer determine where they live or even the medical treatment they receive.

Before the hearing, the judge appoints a team of doctors, psychologists and social workers to evaluate the person’s need for a guardian. That team, along with other witnesses, testify during a disability hearing in district court.

Those who become guardians are placed under bond and are required to make periodic reports to the judge.

Disability hearings help us make sure there is protection for those who no longer can protect themselves.

Back to top

How does the county attorney’s role in juvenile court differ from that in district court?

The easiest way to answer this question is to explain the differences in juvenile and district courts. From truancy to neglect to homicide, all juvenile justice issues fall under the jurisdiction of the county attorney–that is unless the juvenile will be tried as an adult. In that case, he or she will be tried by a commonwealth’s attorney in circuit court.

Juvenile cases are broken down into three categories–status, dependence, and criminal. Criminal cases are heard in a separate division of district court, which is usually referred to as juvenile court. Status and dependence cases are heard in family court.

Status

Status cases involve acts that wouldn’t be considered crimes if adults committed them. Being a habitual runaway and skipping school are two examples.

Efforts, such as arranging for counseling, are made to involve families and their children in solving the problem.

Dependence, neglect, and abuse

These cases do not involve juvenile crimes, but rather crimes against children, such as neglect or abuse. Dependency cases result when children are deprived of basic rights, including the right to adequate food, clothing, and shelter; the right to be free from physical, sexual, or emotional injury or exploitation; the right to develop physically, mentally, and emotionally to their potential; the right to educational instruction; and the right to a secure, stable family.

If deprived of these rights, children must be removed from their homes until the situation is corrected. If removal is permanent, it may mean the termination of parental rights.

Criminal offenses

County attorneys prosecute all juvenile crime cases that are tried in district court. There are a few differences between juvenile and adult court. There is no trial by jury available in juvenile criminal court cases. Also, some of the terminology is different. “Sentences” are called “dispositions,” and “trials” are called “adjudications” in juvenile court.

While almost all juvenile crimes are tried in district court, there is another possibility for juveniles who have committed felonies. They may be deemed youthful offenders and sent to circuit court for trial as adults.

Back to top