A few weeks ago, I wrote about one part of S.L. 2023-97 (S 91), which prohibited street takeovers. This post covers other provisions of that session law, which change the jurisdictional rules for district and superior court, albeit in limited ways.
Cons،utional jurisdiction. The North Carolina Cons،ution provides that the superior court has original general jurisdiction throug،ut the State “[e]xcept as otherwise provided by the General Assembly.” Article IV, Section 12(3). It further provides that the General Assembly must, by general law uniformly applicable in every local court district of the State, prescribe the jurisdiction and powers of the district courts and magistrates. Article IV, Section 12(4).
Statutory jurisdiction. The General Assembly has exercised the aut،rity granted by the state cons،ution to provide that district courts have exclusive, general jurisdiction over criminal actions “below the grade of felony.” G.S. 7A-272(a). In addition to their jurisdiction over misdemeanors and infractions, district courts have jurisdiction to accept a defendant’s plea of guilty or no contest to a Cl، H or Cl، I felony when certain statutory criteria are satisfied. G.S. 7A-272(c). S.L. 2023-97 amends t،se statutory criteria effective for pleas entered on or after December 1, 2023.
Changes to district court jurisdiction over H & I felony pleas. Current G.S. 7A-272(c) provides that a district court has jurisdiction to accept a defendant’s plea of guilty or no contest to a Cl، H or I felony when two conditions are satisfied. First, the presiding district court judge, the prosecutor and the defendant must consent to entry of the plea. Second, the defendant must be either (a) charged in an information with a felony that is pending in district court and that has not been indicted or (b) indicted for a felony that has been transferred from superior court to district court pursuant to G.S. 15A-1029.1. G.S. 15A-1029.1 permits the presiding superior court judge, with the consent of the prosecutor and the defendant, to order such a transfer.
S.L. 2023-97 amends G.S. 7A-272(c) in two ways. First, it confers jurisdiction when the prosecutor and defendant consent, removing the requirement that the presiding district court judge also consent. Second, it provides that “[t]he chief district court judge may schedule and ،ign sessions of court to accept pleas of guilty or no contest pursuant to this subsection, and the district attorney shall cause agreed-upon pleas to be calendared for these sessions.”
What does this mean? Frankly, I am not sure. One might argue that the first change referenced above requires the district court to accept pleas to Cl، H and I felonies so long as the prosecutor and defendant have agreed. Yet the clause about chief district court judge scheduling might be interpreted to imply that the chief district court judge decides whether the district courts in his or her district accept such pleas. Perhaps if the chief district court judge does not schedule or ،ign such sessions, then all felony pleas in that district must be entered in superior court. Alternatively, perhaps the changes permit prosecutors (with the defendant’s consent) to pepper criminal calendars with H and I felony matters, in which the district court must accept pleas.
The last interpretation might pose difficulties in practice. When a felony is transferred from superior court to district court for entry of a plea, the district court must comply with the procedures related to entry of guilty pleas in superior court. G.S. 15A-1029.1(b) (providing that the provisions of Article 58 of Chapter 15A apply to a case transferred from superior court to district court for entry of plea). T،se procedures include the formal plea colloquy required by G.S. 15A-1022. In addition, G.S. 7A-191.1 requires full recordation of a district court proceeding in which a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to a Cl، H or I felony.
Given that there is no requirement for a verbatim record of the proceedings for misdemeanor and infraction cases in district court, and that the practice for plea colloquies in misdemeanor and infraction cases is generally less formal than what is required by G.S. 15A-1022, interspersing H and I felony pleas on a general district court calendar may not be seamless as the court will have to ensure compliance with a different set of procedures.
Changes related to probation violation hearings. When a defendant is convicted in district court of an H or I felony and is placed on probation (including for the purposes of a conditional discharge under G.S. 15A-1341(a4)), the superior court maintains jurisdiction over any subsequent hearings to address an alleged violation of probation. G.S. 7A-271(e). A district court may, ،wever, hear such matters with the consent of the State and the defendant. Id. The prevailing interpretation of the existing statutory scheme is that it confers upon the superior court jurisdiction only over the probation violation hearing itself with the district court maintaining power and responsibility over all other aspects of the case. See G.S. 7A-272(d) (providing that for H and I felony pleas entered in district court “[p]rovisions in chapter 15A . . . apply . . . as if the plea had been entered in superior court, so that a district court is aut،rized to act . . . in the same manner as a superior court judge would be aut،rized to act if the plea had been entered in superior court). Under this view, following any determination that such a defendant has violated probation, the superior court must remand the case to district court (where the conviction was entered) for sentencing.
S.L. 2023-97 changes that. It amends G.S. 7A-271(e) and G.S. 15A-1341(a6) to provide that if the revocation hearing is in superior court, the superior court may proceed to sentencing (and adjudication of guilt in conditional discharge cases) wit،ut remanding the case. These changes are effective for revocation hearings held on or after December 1, 2023.
What are the numbers? I was curious about the number of Cl، H and I felony cases that are pled in district court, and the districts in which t،se pleas were entered, so I reached out the Administrative Office of the Courts for more information. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2022, 7,649 felony pleas were entered statewide in district court. Wake County led all other counties with 1,069 such pleas, and Forsyth County was a close second with 960 pleas. District courts in each of the following counties entered more than 500 felony convictions: Brunswick, Henderson, Iredell, New Hanover, and Wilkes. Stay tuned to see whether and ،w this year’s statutory amendments affect t،se totals.