First off there are two different types of courts. We have District Court and Superior Court. District Court is the lower court below Superior Court. The criminal jurisdiction of North Carolina courts depends on the type of offense charged, but ultimately all crimes are within the jurisdiction of the Superior Court.
Generally, Superior Court has exclusive jurisdiction over all felonies. All felony trials in which the defendant pleads “not guilty” must be tried before a jury; the state constitution does not allow a judge to decide whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty of a felony. Superior Court judges are elected to eight year terms.
The District Court has jurisdiction over a felony to conduct a preliminary hearing to determine whether or not there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the offense. In District Court you cannot have a jury trial and can only have a “bench trial.” A bench trial is one where the judge decides the verdict instead of a jury. In Wake County we have nineteen District Court judges and they are elected to four year terms.
If the felony defendant loses the preliminary hearing, the District Court orders that the defendant stand trial in Superior Court and the case is transferred there. With the consent of the district attorney and the defendant, the District Court also may take guilty pleas to certain less serious felonies, but the District Court in those cases operates as if the plea were entered in Superior Court and must follow the Superior Court’s procedures.
For misdemeanor cases, the District Court has exclusive “original” jurisdiction, which means that all misdemeanor crimes are tried initially in District Court (unless the misdemeanor was committed as part of the same act as a felony, in which case both are tried together in Superior Court). A criminal trial in District Court is always a “bench trial.” However, because the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a person charged with a crime the right to be tried by a jury, a defendant convicted of a misdemeanor in District Court has the right to appeal his conviction to the Superior Court for a new trial (essentially starting over) in which the trial must be before a jury. If a defendant pleads guilty to a low-level felony in District Court and appeals the judgment, there is no new trial in Superior Court. Because the plea is treated as if it had been done in Superior Court, any appeal from the judgment goes to the appellate division.
Infractions and Speeding Tickets in Wake County North Carolina
In addition to misdemeanors, District Court has original jurisdiction over infractions. An infraction is not a criminal offense and may be punished only by a fine. A person charged with an infraction initially appears before District Court, but if the person is found responsible for committing the infraction he may appeal to the Superior Court for a new hearing. Unlike felonies and misdemeanors, a person found responsible for an infraction cannot be sent to jail or prison for the infraction, so the state constitution’s requirement that a jury decide criminal cases does not apply. A person who appeals a District Court finding of responsibility for an infraction can have a bench trial in Superior Court.
As officers of the District Court, magistrates generally are the first judicial officials involved in criminal cases, because they usually issue the warrant for arrest that begins most criminal cases. The magistrate also generally sets the initial conditions for bail or pre-trial release for people who have been arrested. In disposing of criminal cases, magistrates have jurisdiction to accept waivers of trial and guilty pleas to certain minor misdemeanors and pleas of responsibility to infractions.
The minor misdemeanors and infractions for which magistrates may accept waivers of trial and pleas of guilt or responsibility generally are traffic, wildlife, boating, marine fisheries, state park recreation and alcoholic beverage offenses.
The District Court has exclusive, original jurisdiction over all juvenile cases. These cases concern children under the age of sixteen who are accused of being “delinquent” and children under the age of eighteen who are “undisciplined,” “abused,” “neglected” or “dependent.” All records of juvenile proceedings are confidential. A finding of delinquency may result in detention of the juvenile, but only in state facilities reserved for juveniles; a delinquent juvenile is not housed in an adult prison. However, a juvenile charged with committing a felony after his or her thirteenth birthday may be transferred to Superior Court for trial as an adult in some situations.