Magistrate court is the name of the lowest-level criminal courts in England. You may think that this doesn't help explain the function of magistrate courts in this country, but, in fact, it does. In the United States, a magistrate court is a sort of small claims court, one having limited jurisdiction over minor civil and criminal matters. Not every state has magistrate courts, and even those that do assign them slightly different responsibilities.
What Is Magistrate Court?
Think of a magistrate court as a super-powered small claims court. In states that have magistrate courts, like West Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina, they act as limited jurisdiction courts. They may hear civil cases where the claims are under a certain amount, handle evictions and process minor criminal matters like traffic tickets. Each state using a magistrate court gives the court different priorities and responsibilities, but all involve cases on the smaller side.
Read More: How to Address a Magistrate
Magistrate Courts by State
In Georgia, the magistrate court doesn't just act like small claims court. It is actually also called small claims court. Like small claims in other states, it offers an informal court procedure and an expedited legal process for very little money. You can file a claim in magistrate court yourself or you can hire an attorney. Magistrate court cases are heard and decided by a judge without a jury. The court only handles money claims of less than $15,000.
In West Virginia, magistrate courts hear civil cases when the amount in dispute is less than $10,000. The court also hears minor criminal cases like misdemeanor cases, and conducts preliminary examinations in felony cases. Other criminal case functions of the West Virginia magistrate court are issuing and recording affidavits, complaints, arrest warrants and search warrants. Magistrate judges also set bail, resolve plea agreements and collect court costs and fines.
In South Carolina, the magistrate court serves as both the summary criminal court and the small claims court for South Carolina residents. All traffic cases are tried there, as well as misdemeanor criminal offenses punishable by a jail sentence of up to 30 days or a fine of up to $500. Small civil claims of up to $7,500 are also heard here, as are landlord-tenant disputes.
Can a Magistrate Put You in Jail?
In magistrate courts that decide criminal cases, judges can put you in jail. However, the criminal cases they hear are all on the smaller end of the spectrum, so the type of incarceration that a magistrate court can order is also limited.
A magistrate court in the United States is a sort of small claims court where minor civil and criminal matters are heard.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.