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Magistrate cuts cause consternation for cops

A state plan to eliminate a part-time magistrate in Highlands is being roundly condemned — and resisted — by Macon County law enforcement leaders and government officials.

Slashing the positions in the name of savings has been likened to a cutting-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face measure. Good on paper, perhaps, if you’re sitting in Raleigh trying to make the numbers add up.

But inane if you’re among those who live in this region and drive the 10 winding mountain miles between Franklin and Highlands — a trip that costs cops and deputies an hour each time they need to charge someone with a crime.

The loss of two magistrates in Jackson County, reducing the number from five to three, is posing problems for the court system there, too, and has prompted official requests that the cash-strapped state Administrative Office of the Courts reconsider the cuts. The last time Jackson had just three magistrates, it was 1979 and the sheriff’s department had 14 employees, said Clerk of Court Ann Melton. Today, Jackson County’s sheriff’s department has 78 employees.

The magistrate situation is OK in Haywood and Swain counties for now, with Haywood standing at five magistrates and small Swain at three, Chief District Judge Richie Holt said last week.

But in light of the cuts in Jackson and Macon, Holt has been forced to reduce the amount of time magistrates in those two counties are available to book suspects, issue warrants and the like. Law enforcement is very unhappy about it, Holt said, and the public is often forced to wait for a magistrate to appear.

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There is supposed to be a magistrate on duty 24 hours a day, Holt said. “With three in Jackson County, do the math — we just can’t do it. It’s not possible to have 24-hour, seven-days-a-week coverage,” he said.

Magistrates are on-call for law enforcement when they aren’t physically in their offices.

Elimination would take place in the fall of 2012. Macon County will lose another fulltime magistrate in Franklin, too, in the name of state savings, but it’s the part-time position in Highlands that’s causing the heartburn. That’s because if the elimination happens, Highlands would be left without law enforcement protection while officers make the drive down the mountain to obtain a magistrate’s services in Franklin. Or, more town officers or county deputies would need to be assigned to protect southern Macon County.

Most likely at a much higher cost than what the state is proposing to save, Highlands Police Chief Bill Harrell said. The magistrate in Highlands costs the state $20,000 a year.

“In Raleigh, it looks like 15 minutes (between the towns). It’s actually a 40-minute drive,” Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland said. And that, of course, doesn’t figure in the amount of time officers and deputies spend on individual cases — that could be hours, not minutes; and in the case of mental-health patients, days and not hours.


What do they do?

Magistrates have legal duties in both criminal and civil cases. In many instances, a citizen’s first contact with the judicial system comes via a magistrate. The magistrate determines if, and to what extent, additional action is needed when a police officer or a citizen says that a crime has been committed. Duties include issuing arrest warrants, search warrants, subpoenas and civil warrants. Magistrates conduct bond hearings to set bail and conditions of release when someone is charged with a criminal offense, among many other duties.

Source: N.C. Magistrates Association

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