COUNTY ORDINANCE CASES IN MAGISTRATE COURT
An action that is illegal is only illegal because it violates an established law. Such an action may be illegal under one or more different sets of laws. For example, it is illegal under Georgia law to rob a bank. Bank robbery is also illegal under Federal Law because it violates a Federal statute. The same is true of County Ordinance Violations. Columbia County has established a set of laws, known as County Ordinances, which make certain actions illegal. The actions which are illegal under County Ordinances may also constitute a violation of State law or other laws but the County has elected to prosecute the case as a County Ordinance violation. All violations of County Ordinances are misdemeanors and are referred to Magistrate Court for resolution.
Magistrate Court presides over all county ordinance violations, including but not limited to possession of alcohol by those under the age of 21, animal control violations, illegal sale of alcohol, disorderly conduct and violations of zoning ordinances. Hearings on County Ordinance violations occur several times each month and are presided over by either the Chief Magistrate Judge or the Associate Magistrate Judge.
If a citizen receives a citation the court date will appear on the lower half of the citation. If the Defendant fails to appear on the initial court date a bench warrant will be issued for his or her arrest and that person will be held in jail pending a rescheduled court date. On the initial court date (also referred to as Arraignment) every person charged with a violation will be advised of their rights by the Court. These rights include important Constitutional and legal rights which must be conveyed to every person charged. Specifically, the Defendant is entitled to an attorney, either one he or she retains or an appointed attorney if the Defendant is indigent. At Arraignment, every person charged must make an election to proceed without counsel, to request an appointed attorney or their employed attorney must be present to represent the Defendant. The Court will not grant a continuance in the matter to allow the Defendant additional time to hire an attorney. Those arrangements must be made between the time the citation is issued and Arraignment.
The Defendant will also be advised of further rights. These rights include the right to a jury trial, the right to confront and cross examine witnesses, the right to have witnesses subpoenaed who would testify for the Defendant, the right to require the County to prove the Defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the right to remain silent or to testify and other important rights that the Court will discuss prior to any action being taken.
After each Defendant is advised of his or her rights verbally, each Defendant will be presented with a written recitation of those same rights and the Defendant will make an election relative to counsel and also enter a plea. The Defendant can plead guilty, request a plea of nolo contendre (also known as a 'no contest' plea), or plead not guilty. If the Defendant pleads not guilty, the Defendant will then further elect whether to have a bench trial before the Magistrate Judge or a jury trial in Superior Court. If the Defendant elects a jury trial the case will be transferred to Superior Court for a jury trial and the District Attorney will serve as the prosecutor. The District Attorney may elect to proceed with the citation or may elect to formally accuse the case as a State law violation. All not guilty pleas in which the Defendant elects to have a bench trial will be scheduled for trial on a later date to allow both the Defendant and the County to subpoena witnesses. If the Defendant wishes to subpoena witnesses, he or she will need to personally appear in the Magistrate Court Clerk's office to have the subpoenas issued and served. The request for subpoenas must be made sufficiently in advance of trial to allow time for service. There are costs associated with the issuance and service of such subpoenas, unless the Defendant is determined to be indigent.
If the Defendant enters a plea of guilty at arraignment the case will proceed to sentencing on the date of Arraignment. The County will present the factual basis for the plea and may make a recommendation as to the sentence to be imposed. Recommendations are not binding upon the Court. A Defendant may request the Court accept a plea of nolo contendre (no contest). A plea of nolo contendre allows the Defendant to avoid admitting guilt but accept punishment as if he or she had in fact entered a guilty plea. Whether the Court will accept a nolo contendre plea is a matter left solely to the discretion of the Magistrate Judge.
The maximum sentence for most County Ordinance violations is up to six months in confinement and up to $1,000 in fines, per offense. The Court may sentence a Defendant to probation to avoid requiring the Defendant to be incarcerated. As a condition of probation, the Defendant may be ordered to pay fines, perform community service, undergo certain types of counseling, have a curfew, refrain from certain types of conduct, pursue an education, submit to random drug screens and/or other conditions that the Court may deem appropriate under the circumstances. All persons placed on probation will be required to pay a probation supervision fee and all of the surcharges on such fines required under Georgia law. If the Defendant violates the terms of probation, the probation officer may request that the Defendant be brought back to court and, if the Court finds that the Defendant has violated his or her probation, the Defendant may be sentenced to serve the time remaining on the original sentence in confinement or the probation may be modified to address the deficiencies alleged by the probation officer.
If the Defendant elects to enter a plea of not guilty and requests a bench trial, the case will be reset for hearing as discussed above. It is important that the Defendant keep the Magistrate Court Clerk advised of any changes in address because future court date notices will be mailed to the last known address of the Defendant. If the Defendant fails to appear for trial, a bench warrant may be issued for his or her arrest and the Defendant will be incarcerated until the time of trial. At the trial, the County will be required to prove the Defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The County will be required to present evidence sufficient to meet that burden of proof. After each witness called by the County testifies, the Defendant will be allowed to cross examine (ask questions of) each such witness. When the County has concluded presenting its evidence, the Defendant will be allowed, but not required, to present evidence. Each person who the Defendant calls as a witness, if any, will be subject to cross examination by the County Attorney. At the conclusion of the presentation of evidence, the Court will decide if the County has proven the Defendant's guilt beyond a resonable doubt. If so, the case will then proceed to sentencing as discussed above. If the Defendant is found not guilty, the Defendant will be free to leave with no further obligation to the Court.
Occasionally, first time offenders will be sentenced differently from repeat offenders. If appropriate, a first time offender may be allowed to enter a plea, be sentenced and if the Defendant completes the terms of his or her sentence without violation, the case will show as having been dismissed on the Defendant's criminal record. However, such a dispostion does not mean that the first offense did not happen, just that it was treated as if it was dismissed. If there is a subsequent violation of the law after the completion of the initial sentence, the Defendant will be treated as a repeat offender.
This site is intended to give a general overview of the process and procedure of a County Ordinance violation in Magistrate Court. The Court is specifically prohibited from giving legal advice and this site is not intended to provide legal advice. The Court encourages all persons charged with a criminal offense to seek the advice of legal counsel before making any court appearance.