What’s the procedure in magistrate court in SC?
The magistrate court, or summary court, is the “lower court” in SC’s criminal justice system. Although magistrate court, like SC’s circuit court, also has a “civil side,” in this blog post I’m going to be talking only about the “criminal side” of the magistrate court in SC including criminal offenses and traffic tickets in the magistrate court.
Although it is the “lower court,” magistrate court charges or traffic tickets can be confusing and intimidating for many people, especially if it is your first experience with SC’s magistrate courts.
Below, I’ll answer some of the more common questions that our clients have about the procedure in magistrate court in SC, including how it is determined whether your case is in magistrate court or general sessions court, how arrest and bond hearings work in the magistrate court, and when you should request a jury trial in the magistrate court.
What’s the Procedure in Magistrate Court in SC?
The procedure in magistrate court in SC can vary somewhat from county to county and court to court, but there are enough similarities across the state that you can know what to expect if you have been arrested and charged in the magistrate court or if you have received a traffic ticket in the magistrate court.
First, which criminal charges go to the magistrate court and which criminal charges go to the “higher” general sessions court?
Which Criminal Charges are in the Magistrate Court in SC?
Once you are charged with a crime or written a traffic ticket in SC, your case is sent to either the magistrate court, the municipal court, or what is called general sessions court – the criminal side of SC’s circuit court.
As a general rule, any criminal charges that carry a potential sentence of more than 30 days in jail automatically go to general sessions court, regardless of whether the arrest was made in the county or within city limits.
As a general rule, any criminal charges including traffic tickets that carry a potential sentence of 30 days or less automatically go to either the magistrate court or the municipal court. If it happened within city limits, it goes to the municipal court. If it happened in the county outside of city limits, it goes to the magistrate court for that area of the county.
There are many exceptions, however. For example:
- DUI first offense with a BAC of .16 or higher carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 days and up to 90 days in jail;
- DUS third offense where the person’s license was suspended for a prior DUI is punishable by a mandatory minimum of six months and as much as three years in prison; and
- “Transfer court” allows cases punishable by up to a year in prison to be transferred to the magistrate court when the parties consent.
The above types of cases can be heard in the magistrate court and there are other exceptions, but the general rule is that cases punishable by 30 days or less will be heard in the magistrate or municipal courts in SC.
Arrest in Magistrate Court in SC
If you are arrested for shoplifting, disorderly conduct, domestic violence, or another magistrate-level charge, the arrest and booking process is the same as it would be if you had been charged with a more serious offense in general sessions.
You are handcuffed, transported to the jail, “booked,” possibly questioned by police, and then you wait for a bond hearing.
Bond Hearings in Magistrate Court in SC
The procedure for bond hearings in magistrate court in SC is also the same as the procedure for bond hearings in general sessions court.
All bond hearings, with few exceptions (murder, for example), are heard by a magistrate, usually within 48 hours of the person’s arrest. In most cases, the bond hearing will be held the morning after the arrest.
The amount of bond is usually much lower than the bond set for general sessions level offenses, and you are more likely to be given a “PR bond” that allows you to be released pending your trial.
At your bond hearing, you will be given paperwork that tells you when you must appear for your initial court date (bench trial date).
Traffic Tickets in Magistrate Court in SC
If you have a traffic ticket in the magistrate court, you will be given a court date for a bench trial. If you don’t appear at the bench trial, you will most likely be found guilty in your absence. If you don’t resolve your case before the bench trial or request a jury trial before the court date on your ticket, you will most likely be found guilty and sentenced by the magistrate on that day.
A bench trial, in most cases, means that the judge will hear what the officer has to say, ask you what happened, and then find you guilty. It is a summary court, which means the magistrate’s goal is to move cases as quickly as possible…
The best approach can vary based on your circumstances, but, in most cases, your attorney will either request a jury trial before the court date or appear for you on the court date to attempt to work your case out more quickly before requesting a jury trial.
Should I Request a Jury Trial Before My Court Date in Magistrate Court?
When your attorney requests a jury trial before your court date, whether it is a traffic ticket or a more serious criminal offense, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have a jury trial.
It is to protect you, allowing your attorney to:
- Request discovery materials and investigate your case;
- Negotiate with the officer or prosecutor before your trial date;
- Ask the court to grant motions or intervene when the officer or prosecutor is unreasonable; and then
- Ask a jury to acquit you when all else fails.
Do I Need a Lawyer in Magistrate Court in SC?
If you are charged with a crime in the magistrate court, you need an attorney if you want to maximize your chance at keeping your record clean and avoiding the possibility of jail time. Your attorney can:
- Investigate your case and locate defense witnesses;
- Request discovery materials and identify problems in the state’s case against you, including the possibility of excluding evidence based on constitutional violations;
- Negotiate with your prosecutor to find an alternative that meets your goals – a dismissal, a pretrial diversion program, or a plea agreement;
- Prepare your case for trial, including researching potential legal issues, grounds for dismissal, and grounds for the exclusion of evidence; and
- Try your case to a jury.
If you do not retain an attorney to handle your magistrate court charges, you may or may not be given a public defender – SC has traditionally refused to provide counsel to indigent defendants in the magistrate courts, but, hopefully, that is changing after a lawsuit brought by the ACLU.
If you have a speeding ticket or other minor traffic violation in the magistrate court, you may need an attorney if you want to keep the ticket off your driving record and avoid insurance penalties.
In many cases, you can pay your ticket online without retaining an attorney. When you “pay your ticket,” however, you are pleading guilty and it cannot easily be undone – it could result in points on your license, increased insurance premiums, or even a license suspension.
Your attorney can request a jury trial and then work on 1) getting your ticket dismissed, 2) minimizing the impact on your license and insurance if the ticket is not dismissed, or 3) preparing your ticket for a trial in some cases.
Magistrate Court Criminal Defense and Traffic Lawyer in Myrtle Beach, SC
Daniel A. Selwa is a criminal defense attorney in Myrtle Beach, SC.
Call now at (843) 492-5449 or send an email for a free consultation to discuss your case and how we can help.