Editor’s note: This post has been revised slightly in response to a helpful comment from a reader.
A district court session usually lasts one day, so many court actors have gotten in the habit of thinking that a district court session is a day as a matter of law. Some North Carolina publications refer to this day-long rule as if it were a foregone conclusion. However, “session” is not defined statutorily and there is authority to suggest that a district court session may span days. For those of you who can’t stand the suspense, see the last paragraph. For those of you who are less intrigued, this is not an academic exercise! Consider how the definition of “session” comes into play in sentencing.
Under G.S. 15A-1340.21(d), if a defendant is convicted of more than one offense in a single session of district court, only one of the convictions can be used to determine the prior conviction level for misdemeanor sentencing. By way of illustration, let’s say Donald Defendant’s record reflects that he was convicted of 8 counts of misdemeanor larceny on August 11, 2009, and has no other prior convictions. He is being sentenced today for Assault on a Government Official, a Class A1 misdemeanor. Donald is a prior conviction level II; only one of the larcenies can be used because he was convicted of all of them in a single session of court. He can therefore receive a sentence of up to 75 days. If the district court judge erroneously counted the larcenies as 8 prior convictions and treated Donald as a prior conviction level III, he could receive an active sentence of 150 days, twice as many days.
The rule for calculating multiple prior convictions could have even more impact if Donald were being sentenced for a felony in superior court a few weeks from today. In the context of determining prior record level for felony sentencing, the same rule applies: only one conviction counts where the defendant was convicted of more than one offense in a single session of district court. G.S. 15A-1340.14(d). New legislation tweaking the felony sentencing grid provides that for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2009, an offender with either 0 points or 1 point will be considered a Prior Record Level I for felony sentencing. S.L. 2009-555, amending G.S. 15A-1340.14(c) and 15A-1340.17(c). So, if Donald is in superior court on December 1 for sentencing on a felony, he would be sentenced as a prior record level I in spite of the 8 counts of misdemeanor larceny on his record. Assuming Donald were being sentenced for Assault with a Deadly Weapon Inflicting Serious Injury, a Class E felony, the statutory change would reduce his potential sentence by about 6 months. Rather than facing 36 to 53 months imprisonment as a Prior Record Level II, he faces 31 to 47 as a Record Level I. If the superior court judge were unfamiliar with G.S. 15A-1340.14(d) and mistakenly determined that the 8 larcenies constituted 8 points, Donald could face 42 to 60 months as a Prior Record Level III.
Here is a question that is arising as a result of innovative district court calendaring practices. Some chief district judges are scheduling week-long sessions of DWI court for efficiency purposes. How will multiple prior convictions be calculated in this scenario? Assume Donald is hailed into district court on Tuesday where he is convicted of DWI 1, and is hailed in again on Wednesday, where he is convicted of DWI 2. Does this count as one prior conviction because both offenses were handled in one district court session spanning multiple days? I think the answer has to be yes. Defendants are placed on notice that their case will be reached some time during the DWI court week making these sessions analogous to week-long sessions of superior court, and only one conviction can be used from a given week of superior court to determine the conviction or record level. G.S. 15A-1340.21(d); G.S. 15A-1340.14(d). As we have seen, the answer will have a big impact for any future sentencing Donald may confront. Taking this scenario to an extreme, a person with five prior convictions of DWI could potentially be treated the same for felony sentencing purposes as a person who has no prior convictions, after December 1.
The DWI court model leaves me wondering: 1) Are there other district court scheduling practices that give rise to an argument that we are in fact dealing with one session spanning multiple days? Maybe other specialized courts, such as domestic violence court, function similarly in that one judge is assigned to the session and defendants are noticed that their case will be heard on “Monday or Tuesday,” or whatever may be the case; and 2) How in the world are defenders going to determine whether their clients’ prior convictions occurred in one extended session of district court or multiple single-day sessions? Do defenders have an obligation whenever they see that their client had two convictions in one calendar week to investigate the nature of the session(s)? Is it possible to make a person’s record reflect that two district court convictions on different days were actually part of the same session?
What authority supports that a session of district court session may last multiple days? In this bulletin, “Out-of-Term, Out-of-Session, Out-of-County,” School of Government faculty member Michael Crowell notes that a day of district court is commonly considered a session because chief district judges, who have the authority to arrange schedules and assign district judges under G.S. 7A‑146(1), typically assign judges by the day. However, Crowell cites Routh v. Weaver, 67 N.C. App. 426 (1984), in support of the proposition that a chief district judge may also assign a district judge to hear a particular motion or case. “[T]he hearing of that single case, however long it lasts, constitutes a session as well.” Crowell at 1. The Routh court adopts the following expansive definition of “session” from Black’s Law Dictionary:
The sitting of a court, Legislature, council, commission, etc., for the transaction of its proper business. Hence, the period of time, within any one day, during which such body is assembled in form, and engaged in the transaction of business, or, in a more extended sense, the whole space of time from its first assembling to its prorogation or adjournment.
Routh at 431. So, how long is district court in session? In the absence of any parameters from the chief district judge, the answer appears to be “until it is over.”