Under G.S. 7A-272(c), the district court has jurisdiction to accept a defendant’s plea of guilty or no contest to a Class H or I felony in certain circumstances. The law extending this limited jurisdiction to the district court came into effect in 1996 (S.L. 1995-725), and it has been used more and more over time. In FY 2000-01, for instance, 16 percent of all Class H and I felonies were pled in district court; in FY 2009-10, that number was up to 25 percent. (Those statistics came from the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission’s annual statistical reports, available here—a data goldmine that’s definitely worth a look.)
Today’s post briefly covers some of the technicalities related to taking Class H and I felony pleas in district court, including the rules for appeals and probation violation hearings.
A defendant may only enter a plea to a Class H or I felony in district court with the consent of the presiding district court judge, the prosecutor, and the defendant. G.S. 7A-272(c). If the defendant has not yet been indicted and the case is still pending in district court, the prosecution must charge the defendant by information under G.S. 15A-644.1. After indictment, the case may—with the consent of the State, the defendant, and the presiding superior court judge—be transferred back to the district court under G.S. 15A-1029.1. G.S. 7A-272(c). When a plea is accepted in district court the trial judge must require that a true, complete, and accurate record be made of the proceeding. G.S. 7A-191.1. In general, a district judge accepting a felony plea is authorized to act in the same manner a superior court judge would be authorized to act if the plea had been entered in superior court. Authorized appeals of the conviction are to the appellate division. G.S. 7A-272(d).
If a felony case pled in district court is sentenced to probation (and many of them are), the superior court has default jurisdiction over all probation violation hearings held pursuant to G.S. 15A-1345(e). The district court may, however, hear those matters with the consent of the State and the defendant (technically, the judge doesn’t get a vote). G.S. 7A-271(e). If the revocation hearing is held in district court and the court activates a sentence or imposes special probation, the appeal of that revocation is to superior court. It’s not obvious that that would be the case; as mentioned above, G.S. 7A-272(d) says “appeals that are authorized in these matters are to the appellate division.” However, the Supreme Court of North Carolina held in State v. Hooper, 358 N.C. 122 (2004), that the requirement in G.S. 15A-1347 that “[w]hen a district court judge . . . activates a sentence or imposes special probation, the defendant may appeal to the superior court for a de novo revocation hearing” trumps G.S. 7A-272(d). So, Class H and I revocations in district court get a de novo appeal to superior court—perhaps lessening the likelihood that everyone will agree to hold the initial violation hearing in district court in the first place.
The jurisdiction and appeal rules for Class H and I felony probation matters handled in district court are different from the rules for felony drug treatment court or therapeutic court judgments supervised in district court. Under legislation passed in 2009 (S.L. 2009-452 and S.L. 2009-516) and 2010 (S.L 2010-96), those cases may, with the consent of the chief district court judge and the senior resident superior court judge (and no input from the defendant or the State), be supervised by the district court—which is good, because they were sometimes being supervised there before the law expressly allowed it. G.S. 7A-272(e). The district court can modify or extend probation judgments in those cases, but jurisdiction to revoke probation is in the superior court—unless the chief district court judge and the senior resident superior court judge agree that it is in the interest of justice to hold the revocation proceeding in district court (again, no vote for the State or the defendant). Appeals of revocations in those cases are—you guessed it—to the appellate division. G.S. 7A-271(f).