South Carolina Criminal Court System
Many of my clients come into the office and have no clue what court their charge will be heard in, what officer or deputy arrested them, or even what jurisdiction. Because of that, I wanted to make some information available as to the levels of criminal court in South Carolina, and their statutory jurisdictions.
Magistrate and Municipal Courts
The lowest level of the criminal courts in South Carolina are magistrate and municipal level courts. This doesn't mean that the offenses which they hear are not serious to the defendants charged with the criminal offenses, however, there has to be a lowest and there has to be a highest. Magistrate and municipal level cases are on the bottom. By statute, offenses heard in these courts are generally traffic offenses and offenses which carry 30 days and/or a fine of $500 or less.
The 30 days and/or $500 requirement is the general magistrate and municipal level threshold for jurisdiction. Section 22-3-550 is the general statute that gives magistrates their authority to hear criminal cases.
"(A) Magistrates have jurisdiction of all offenses which may be subject to the penalties of a fine or forfeiture not exceeding five hundred dollars, or imprisonment not exceeding thirty days, or both. "
Municipal courts are given their authority to hear criminal cases under a different statute. Section 14-25-45 says, municipal courts "shall also have all such powers, duties and jurisdiction in criminal cases made under state law and conferred upon magistrates." Likewise, section 14-25-65 says, a municipal court "may impose a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or imprisonment for thirty days, or both."
Magistrate and municipal courts are not always limited to offenses that have penalties of 30 days and/or $500 or less. Certain offenses give Magistrate and Municipal courts authority to hear cases that otherwise would be out of their jurisdictional level. For example, enticing a child from school found at section 16-17-510, gives magistrates "exclusive" jurisdiction to hear first and second offense cases, even though the penalty is 2 years. Driving under suspension and contraband by an inmate can be prosecuted in magistrate or municipal court.
So then what is the difference between magistrate and municipal court? Magistrate court is at the county level. Anything within the boundaries of the county can be heard at the magistrate level. This would include anything that happens within any particular municipal jurisdiction. Municipal courts have what's called "concurrent" jurisdiction for all cases of a criminal nature that occur with in the municipal boundaries. Therefore, a DUI charge that was made in the city of North Charleston would be appropriate in North Charleston Municipal Court. However technically, the Charleston County Magistrate could likewise hear this case. While technically correct, this scenario would be extremely unlikely unless there was some conflict of interest or some other need to send the case to a different court.
So what about the other offenses? If it is an offense outside of the jurisdictional level of magistrates or municipal court, the case will be held in circuit court. Circuit court is broken up into two divisions- "General Sessions" and "Common Pleas". In circuit court,"General Sessions" is the division of circuit court that hears criminal cases. Even this court has concurrent jurisdiction with cases that may be heard in magistrates or municipal court unless the statute provides exclusive jurisdiction to a magistrate or municipal court judge.
Circuit Court is where all of the more serious charges will be prosecuted. Everything from murder, armed robbery, burglary, and most drug offenses will be heard at the circuit court level. In circuit court, the penalty options are also much broader. A circuit court judge may grant a probationary sentence while a magistrate or municipal judge cannot. On the other extreme, a circuit judge may sentence someone to life in prison or even the death penalty if the charge warrants such a sentence.
Family court, which normally handles divorces, child custody, etc., also has jurisdiction to hear criminal cases of minors. A minor for criminal court is generally classified as anyone under the age of 17 years. A juvenile criminal defense attorney is a requirement in family court in that minors are too young to represent themselves and their parents cannot do so in that they are not attorneys. Family court has some very specific rules about jurisdiction and can be tricky especially with regard to more serious offenses such as some burglary charges and armed robberies.
Magistrate, municipal, family court, and General Sessions are the choices of court for criminal cases in South Carolina. Any cases that are appealed, from magistrate or municipal court, are appealed to the court of common pleas (circuit court). From general sessions or family court, cases are appealed to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court.
Whether you find yourself in magistrate, municipal, family, or General Sessions Court, it is imperative to protect your interest and make sure that the process proceeds as it should. It is always advisable to hire a competent criminal defense attorney to represent you or a loved one in any of these courts.