Magistrates and Criminal Law in North Carolina
A magistrate is not a judge, but is a judicial officer of the District Court. Each of the 100 counties in North Carolina has at least one magistrate. A magistrate has civil functions – including to marry, and to hear small claims suits – and has criminal functions, which I’ll discuss below.
The general statutes for magistrates are located in Article 16, Chapter 7A of the N.C.G.S. A magistrate is selected by the Resident Superior Court Judge – in Wake County, The Hon. Donald Stephens – to a term of first 2 years, and then 4 years from a list of nominees provided by the Clerk of Superior Court. A magistrate need not have any formal legal training before being selected as a magistrate, although before being renominated for a second term, the magistrate must have completed the basic education required of magistrates in North Carolina.
As of 2009, Raleigh (Wake County) had a minimum of 18.5 magistrates (magistrates may be part-time).
Under N.C.G.S. 7A-273 magistrates have the authority in criminal actions to:
- In infraction cases in which the maximum penalty that can be imposed is not more than fifty dollars ($50.00), exclusive of costs, or in Class 3 misdemeanors, other than the types of infractions and misdemeanors specified in subdivision (2) of this section, to accept guilty pleas or admissions of responsibility and enter judgment;
- In misdemeanor or infraction cases involving alcohol offenses under Chapter 18B of the General Statutes, traffic offenses, hunting, fishing, State park and recreation area rule offenses under Chapter 113 of the General Statutes, boating offenses under Chapter 75A of the General Statutes, and littering offenses under G.S. 14?399(c) and G.S. 14?399(c1), to accept written appearances, waivers of trial or hearing and pleas of guilty or admissions of responsibility, in accordance with the schedule of offenses and fines or penalties promulgated by the Conference of Chief District Judges pursuant to G.S. 7A?148, and in such cases, to enter judgment and collect the fines or penalties and costs;
- In misdemeanor cases involving the violation of a county ordinance authorized by law regulating the use of dune or beach buggies or other power?driven vehicles specified by the governing body of the county on the foreshore, beach strand, or the barrier dune system, to accept written appearances, waivers of trial or hearing, and pleas of guilty or admissions of responsibility, in accordance with the schedule of offenses and fines or penalties promulgated by the Conference of Chief District Court Judges pursuant to G.S. 7A?148, and in such cases, to enter judgment and collect the fines or penalties and costs;
- To issue arrest warrants valid throughout the State;
- To issue search warrants valid throughout the county;
- To grant bail before trial for any noncapital offense;
- Notwithstanding the provisions of subdivision (1) of this section, to hear and enter judgment as the chief district judge shall direct in all worthless check cases brought under G.S. 14?107, when the amount of the check is two thousand dollars ($2,000) or less. Provided, however, that under this section magistrates may not impose a prison sentence longer than 30 days;
- To conduct an initial appearance as provided in G.S. 15A?511; and
- To accept written appearances, waivers of trial and pleas of guilty in violations of G.S. 14?107 when the amount of the check is two thousand dollars ($2,000) or less, restitution, including service charges and processing fees allowed by G.S. 14?107, is made, and the warrant does not charge a fourth or subsequent violation of this statute, and in these cases to enter judgments as the chief district judge directs.
Arguably the most important act a magistrate takes in a criminal case is to set bail. In Wake County, bail is generally set using a set of guidelines supplied by the Chief Resident Superior Court Judge and Chief District Court Judge. Magistrates generally operate within those guidelines, unless there is good reason to deviate or unless a judge has already set the bond or a District Attorney has already consented to a particular bond being set.