The Office of the District Attorney represents the State of North Carolina in criminal cases. As attorneys for the State, we advocate on behalf of the public at large and work with victims to reach meaningful resolutions to our cases. Day-to-day, cases are prosecuted by Assistant District Attorneys under the authority of the elected District Attorney. The terms Assistant DA and prosecutor are interchangeable.
When a defendant is charged with a crime, a law enforcement officer will present their case to a magistrate. Upon a showing of probable cause that the defendant committed a crime, a magistrate will issue criminal charges and the defendant will be scheduled to appear in District Court. Where the case goes from there depends on whether the charged offense is a misdemeanor of felony. Keep in mind, that for all offenses, at all times, the District Attorney’s office has sole discretion over which cases are and are not prosecuted within the District. To get a better idea of what kind of crimes are felonies or misdemeanors, please reference this publication.
Felonies that are charged by a law enforcement officer will start in District Court. This allows officers to quickly and appropriately bring criminal charges into the courtroom. With the exception of low-level felony plea bargains, felony cases cannot be heard or tried in District Court. A defendant charged with a felony in District Court will receive a Probable Cause Hearing date, where, if the State chooses, evidence may be presented by the Assistant District Attorney showing that probable cause exists to substantiate the felony offense. If a judge agrees and finds probable cause exists, the case is bound over to Superior Court for continued prosecution. For strategic, practical, or other reasons, the District Attorney’s Office may elect to not present evidence for the felony offense and the case will be dismissed. This, however, does not necessarily mean the case is over.
For any felony offense to reach Superior Court or a jury trial, a prosecutor must submit a proposed indictment to a Grand Jury for their consideration. This process can occur even if the case was dismissed at the District Court level. And in cases where a judge in District Court has found probable cause for a felony, the case must still be submitted to a Grand Jury by a prosecutor to ensure that Superior Court has proper jurisdiction over the felony offenses. Felony case investigative files are turned over by law enforcement for review by the DA’s office. The complexity, type, and severity of a case will have an effect on how each Assistant District Attorney decides to charge and prosecute a particular defendant’s case.
Once a Grand Jury approves a prosecutor’s Indictment (meaning they issued a “True Bill of Indictment”), the felony case is set on an Administrative docket. These Admin dockets are so the State and defense can periodically check in on cases to review evidence and plea negotiations. If a case is not resolved in Admin court, the case is continued to a trial calendar and the State will prepare for trial.
If a private citizen, or a law enforcement officer, initiates a misdemeanor charge against a defendant, the case will be heard in District Court by a judge. Cases brought by private citizens may be referred to a mediator for resolving a case without a trial. In other cases, the District Court prosecutors and defendants/defense attorneys will negotiate the resolution of a case for plea or other appropriate disposition. If a resolution cannot be agreed upon, the case may go to trial before a judge. Defendants convicted of a criminal offense in District Court may choose to appeal their conviction to Superior Court for a new trial in front of a jury.
If a person is arrested on a warrant or indictment, they appear before a judge or magistrate in order to set a bond. Depending on the defendant’s criminal charge, criminal history, and several other factors, a judicial official will determine if the defendant should be required to post a monetary bond, and if so, how much that bond should be. The bond is to ensure the defendant’s continued appearance in Court and participation in the court system, and to help protect the community. If a defendant has been arrested and unable to post bond, he or she will be escorted to court by a uniformed law enforcement officer for his or her court dates. If a person has posted bond, or was not required to post a bond, he or she must be in court at the appointed time indicated on their court paperwork. If a person has been served with a summons, he or she must report to the county courthouse at the designated time on the summons and find the courtroom in which the case will be heard. Criminal summonses do not require a defendant to post a bond, but if a defendant fails to appear after being summonsed, the Court may issue a bond and an Order for Arrest.
The District Attorney’s Office does not set bonds. Often, we argue on behalf of the State regarding the appropriateness of a defendant’s bond or bond conditions. Due to the rules of Court, the DA’s office cannot argue for a bond with a judge without including the defendant and his or her attorney in the proceeding. On occasion, a defendant may ask the Court for a review of his or her bond, and likewise, those reviews cannot be heard without a representative from the District Attorney’s Office.
Subpoenas and Victims
Victims in a case are required to appear in court when served with a subpoena. For misdemeanors in District Court, that appearance is also mandatory if the victim initiated the charge in the first place through a magistrate. For felony cases, our office will contact victims and witness as necessary for court appearances, and we will issue subpoenas when needed to ensure cases can be properly prosecuted and proven in a courtroom. Depending on the case, our office may send a letter or Victim Impact Statement to victims. We encourage victims to fill out and complete any paperwork sent by our office so that we can include the information in plea negotiations, calculating appropriate restitution, and for other considerations. Victims are under an ongoing obligation to update the District Attorney’s Office with any new contact information.
Anyone served with a subpoena must attend court. Sometimes subpoenas come from our office, and sometimes they are issued by the defendant’s attorney or a judge. Please check the subpoena to determine if there are any instructions you should follow regarding your testimony, evidence you need to produce, or if you are eligible to be placed on telephone standby. We do not use the standby system in all cases. If you wish to contest a subpoena, you may file the appropriate paperwork with the Clerk of Court, or hire an attorney to assist you in that process. We cannot assist witnesses who have been subpoenaed by a judge or defense attorney.
Plea Bargains and Trial
A lot of misinformation exists regarding plea negotiations in criminal cases. Plea bargains allow the District Attorney’s Office and the defendant’s attorney to negotiate a settlement to a criminal case quickly and efficiently. Just because a case is resolved through a plea does not mean that the DA will handle the case lightly, or that a defendant is being under-prosecuted. Rather, the negotiations allow prosecutors to consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of each case and bring criminal matters to a final resolution in a timely manner. Unlike criminal trials, cases resolved through a plea are rarely appealed or overturned on appeal. Negotiated pleas allow the DA’s office to maintain control over the disposition of a case that guarantees a desired outcome, prevents victims and witnesses from having to testify in open court, and, when appropriate, avoids the time and taxpayer expense of a trial.
If a case cannot be negotiated, or the DA’s office determines that a case is not appropriate for a plea bargain, the matter will go to trial. The outcome of a trial is ultimately determined by a judge (in District Court), or a jury (in Superior Court).