What is District Court in North Carolina?

North Carolina has a unified court system, organized by county. Each county has a court in its county seat (although Wake County also operates a satellite court in Wendell on Fridays where misdemeanors are handled for eastern Wake communities.)

North Carolina’s general court of justice is divided into two divisions, the lower District Court Division, and a Superior Court Division. All misdemeanors and most felonies, although not all felonies, start out in District Court. Most misdemeanors, and many felonies, end their lives in District Court.

Misdemeanors can reach the trial stage in District Court, where the trial will be heard by a single judge. That judge will render a verdict, which can be guilty or not guilty. If the person has been found not guilty, then the case ends, and there is no further prosecution (although the prosecutor can appeal certain rulings that may have led to a dismissal).

Many misdemeanors never reach the trial stage. They are settled by either a plea, a deferral, a diversion, or a first offenders program. In these cases, the prosecutor agrees to either reduce punishment or dismiss charges entirely provided that the defendant does something, such as community service, to justify the dismissal or reduction in punishment.

For those misdemeanors that reach the trial stage or plea stage, the case may be appealed by the defendant, if he or she loses. If the case is appealed to Superior Court, it is as if the District Court trial never happened. This is called a “de novo” appeal. The reason that any criminal case in district court may be appealed is because where someone’s liberty is at stake, that person has a right to a jury trial.

The District Court, therefore, serves as a filtering court, to filter out the cases that should be resolved with minimal review by a District Court judge. As such, you’d hope that the District Court judges would render decisions consistent with what a Superior Court jury would find, but this isn’t always the case. District Court conviction rates are generally higher than the result from a jury trial.

This is sort of absurd, because it only encourages defendants and their attorneys to appeal cases, which is an incredibly bad use of judicial resources. I will generally advise, where appropriate, that my clients appeal district court cases where I think they might find relief in front of a jury.

While all misdemeanors are handled in District Court, no felonies are tried in District Court. Felonies must be tried in front of a jury, and so the only way to resolve a felony in District Court is through a plea, a diversion or deferral program, a first offenders program, or a dismissal of the charge.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.