You’re arrested, brought to the jail to be booked and wait for your first appearance before the magistrate — the person who holds your freedom in their hands.
As a young magistrate judge in Macon County, Justin Stamey sees that initial interaction as his chance to make a difference in someone’s life — hoping to steer the person in the right direction before it’s too late instead of throwing the book at you.
“We’re in the relationship business — we see some of the same people in and out of here a lot — but with first-time offenders you can hopefully make a positive impression on them even in a negative circumstance,” he said.
Among the long list of duties that fall to magistrate judges, they are responsible for determining whether there is probable cause to arrest someone and, if there is, they are then responsible for setting the person’s bail — the conditions under which the arrested can be released from jail before their court date.
“Once probable cause is established what we go off of is a recommendation form that’s broken down from A1 to Class 3 misdemeanors and felonies. Within those classifications they have recommendations for certain amounts to use, but it’s not set in stone — it’s just a recommendation.”
Stamey said he also takes other factors into consideration before setting bail — the circumstances of the person’s charges, evidence against them, family ties in the community, employment history, financial resources, mental health conditions and prior charges and/or convictions.
The purpose of bail is to ensure the person will show up to his or her court date. Bail often includes a type of bond. Some people are released on their own recognizance, meaning they sign themselves out of jail after signing paperwork stating they understand their responsibility in showing up to court.
A custody release is when someone is released to a third party, which often occurs in juvenile cases and DWI cases. Then there are secured or unsecured money bonds. An unsecured bond means the person only has to pay the bond amount if they fail to appear or fail to comply with any post-release requirements, but a secured bond has to be paid to the court upfront before the person is released.
There are three types of secured bonds. A property bond in which the court will allow someone to post the value of real estate to be released, but it can’t be the defendant’s own property. A surety bond can be satisfied if a bondsman provides the court a contract to cover the bond amount if the defendant violates post-release requirements or fails to appear. The defendant usually has to pay the bondsmen 10 to 15 of the total bond amount upfront.
Then there’s the highly debated cash bond, which requires the full amount of the bond be paid in cash before the defendant can be released. The court holds the money until the disposition of someone’s case. So what happens if you don’t have the money upfront to pay? Either you stay in jail until your court date or you call a bail bondsman to bail you out and make monthly payments until the debt is paid.
Many civil rights advocacy groups have called the cash bond practice unconstitutional and want to see it abolished in the U.S. The argument is that it simply punishes poor people for being poor while allowing those with more financial resources to be released for similar charges. Organizations like the ACLU and the Pretrial Justice Institute assert that people should be released pretrial without a cash bond unless they are a flight risk or a threat to public safety.
Some states are moving away from the cash bond practice as they work on criminal justice reform, but proponents say it’s needed to give people a financial incentive to make their court date. If used properly, Stamey said setting a bond as a condition for release can be an effective tool.
“I don’t know how’d you’d get rid of it — it’s a guarantee they’ll show up. But it doesn’t mean the bond has to be excessive — it’s recommended $500 to $1,000 for a Class 1 misdemeanor but if I feel that $250 is enough, that option is there,” he said. “Then there are three ways you can bond out — cash in full, property owned in North Carolina or go through a bondsmen. They take 15 percent nonrefundable. It’s fairly common to go through a bondsmen.”
Stamey said he tends to set unsecured bonds for first-time offenders because he believes in giving people the benefit of the doubt. He says the law allows him that discretion up to a certain point.
“If you’re arrested for a minor offense and if it’s the first time, I normally give them an unsecured bond and it’s on them to show up and take care of it,” he said. “But if they’ve had a failure to appear recently, they have to have a secured bond. Discretion goes out the window.”
Stamey also stressed the importance of people showing up to court because he’s seen a failure to appear snowball into a worse situation. If you fail to appear, a judge will issue a bench warrant and a deputy will arrest you for breaking the terms of release and you can be placed back in jail — this time with a higher secured bond. Studies show that even being in jail three days increases the likelihood of someone committing another crime.
“If you don’t show up you’re behind the eight ball already and then if you get more charges down the road, you’re looking at a higher bond,” Stamey said.
Other jurisdictions have started using court reminders as a way to get people to show up to court instead of cash bonds — some have used a web-based application people have to sign up for while others have used postcards or text messages to remind people of their court date.
Haywood County Clerk of Court Hunter Plemmons said Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts is working on implementing a pretrial release program that will change the criteria used for setting bond amounts. The Smoky Mountain News will be interviewing Plemmons and Letts later this week to find out more details about the program.
Some states still elect magistrate judges, but in North Carolina it is an appointed position. The initial term of appointment for a magistrate is two years and subsequent terms are for a period of four years.
The Clerk of Superior Court will nominate candidates and the Superior Court Judge will consider the nominations before making the appointment. Stamey is one of four appointed magistrate judges in Macon County. He has been in the position for about five years.
“I’m a Macon County native — born and raised here. It happened by chance I was working in Charlotte at the time and my brother called me — he’s a sheriff’s deputy here — he said there was a magistrate position available, so I put in for it and went through the interview process,” he said.
Unlike other judicial positions, a magistrate doesn’t have to hold a law degree. In fact, there really aren’t many mandated qualifications to become a magistrate judge — something some people argue needs to change. Under North Carolina law, one can be eligible to be a magistrate if they have at least eight years experience as a clerk of court in the state or a four-year degree from an accredited university or a two-year degree and four years of work experience in a related field like teaching, social work, law enforcement, mediation or counseling. However, a newly-appointed magistrate does have to take 40 hours of basic training for the position within six months of the appointment.
Stamey doesn’t have a law degree yet but he is considering going back to law school soon to continue his career in the criminal justice system. Even without a law degree, his undergraduate degree in political science from UNC-Charlotte has proved useful in his position.
“Having a law degree would be beneficial for this position, absolutely. You deal with lawyers in small claims cases so knowing how they communicate and knowing the language would be helpful,” he said. “Do I think it’s absolutely necessary? Not completely — as long as you can have a strong understanding of common sense, differentiate the elements of different crimes, take testimony from law enforcement and defendants it’s not necessary.”
Stamey and other magistrate positions in Macon are considered full-time. They rotate a week on and a week off and also have to travel between offices in Franklin and Highlands. They also have to be on call on weekends during their rotation to handle things like arrest warrants or other pressing judicial matters.
Stamey said magistrates in Western North Carolina also have to be able to take care of criminal and civil matters — that’s not the case in other parts of the state.
“In bigger cities they have both civil and criminal magistrates — but west of Asheville a lot of magistrates do both,” he said. “You have to wear multiple hats and be able to switch on a moment’s notice. We can go from one moment marrying a couple or going straight into issuing process for some one who has a warrant for arrest. It just depends on the day.”
Magistrate judges in North Carolina
• 674.6 magistrate full-time equivalent positions as of June 30, 2017
• Magistrates represent about 11 percent of the judicial branch workforce.
• Like other appointed and elected judicial officials, magistrates earn no leave.
• Magistrates provide an independent and impartial review of complaints brought to the magistrate by law enforcement officers or the general public.
• The judicial branch uses a workload formula to determine the appropriate number of magistrates per county, subject to a minimum quota set by the General Assembly.
• Magistrates are salaried employees who provide services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
• For FY 2016-17, magistrates account for about $47.9 million of the judicial branch budget, representing 9.28 percent of the overall General Fund appropriations to the judicial branch.
Salaries of full-time magistrates
Entry Rate: $37,862
- Step 1 39,519 40,658
- Step 2 42,448 43,673
- Step 3 45,548 46,865
- Step 4 49,263 50,690
- Step 5 53,739 55,298
- Step 6 58,754 60,461