Under state law, individuals charged with felony offenses are guaranteed a first appearance hearing before a district court official within 96 hours after they are taken into custody. But the same rule doesn’t apply to those facing misdemeanor charges. On Wednesday, however, a House bill that would make the time limit uniform for felonies and misdemeanors and reduce it to 72 hours was approved by the House Judiciary 3 Committee.
District court is typically the entry point for those involved in criminal cases. At first appearance hearings, individuals facing charges have their bail reviewed by a judge or magistrate, a lawyer assigned to their case, and a court date set for later.
Without the same mandate that applies to felony charges, however, some defendants accused of misdemeanors sit in jail awaiting their first court appearances for weeks, even longer than the jail time they could have been sentenced to, said Rep. Joe John, D-Wake, a lead sponsor of the bill at the meeting.
The bill was recommended by the Courts Commission, a non-standing committee of the General Assembly. A previous version of this bill was filed in the legislative session last year but was never heard by any committee.
John is a member of the Courts Commission. He served as a district court judge and later a superior court judge based in Greensboro, and presided over trials for more than 25 years.
John told Policy Watch that some jurisdictions already hold both felony and misdemeanor court sessions within 96 hours of the initial arrest, but it’s necessary to adopt a uniform practice across the state.
While the original bill would have set a 96 hour requirement for both felony and misdemeanor charges, an amendment adopted during Wednesday’s meeting lowered the limit to 72 hours. That means a person detained in jail on a Friday would get their case heard by the following Monday.
Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Haywood, Jackson, Swain) said he supports the bill but not the amendment, citing concerns over the difficulty of traveling for sheriff’s offices in mountainous regions like his jurisdiction.
Chuck Spahos, a representative of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys said at the meeting that those charged with felonies and misdemeanors should receive the same treatment of up to 96 hours before the first appearance hearing.
The Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice established by Gov. Roy Cooper recommended that legislators require the first appearance hearing in 48 hours or the next in-session day in district court.
John emphasized at the committee that the bill also provides that clerks of court can conduct first appearance proceedings. Clerks of court in North Carolina have the authority to do so when judges are unavailable under current law.