North Carolina has hundreds of criminal laws. Some of these offenses are established by statute, meaning they are created by the General Assembly, and others are created through common law, meaning they are created through case precedent. The most serious offenses, which may result in a prison sentence of a year or more, are called felonies. Felonies include offenses such as breaking and entering, sale or delivery of controlled substances, rape, and murder. Less serious offenses, punishable by a maximum of 150 days in custody, are called misdemeanors. Misdemeanors include offenses such as shoplifting, driving while impaired, and simple assault. Punishment for a misdemeanor or felony may also include probation, a fine, or other conditions. Finally, non-criminal violations of the law such as routine traffic tickets are called infractions, which are punishable by a fine.
Criminal cases are heard in both District and Superior Courts in North Carolina. Trials in District Court are always held before a judge, while trials in Superior Court are usually held before a jury, though this right can be waived. Misdemeanors and infractions, as well as juvenile matters, are typically prosecuted in District Court, while felonies are typically prosecuted in Superior Court. However, there are several exceptions to this arrangement, depending on the procedural posture of the case. For example, some felonies can be pled in District Court, misdemeanors may be appealed to Superior Court, and serious juvenile cases can be transferred to Superior Court.
If a person has been arrested and is unable to post bond, he or she will be brought to court by a uniformed law enforcement officer on the court date. If a person is free on bond or other pretrial release conditions, he or she must be in court at the appointed time indicated on the release order. If a person has been served with a citation or summons, he or she must report to the county courthouse at the designated time and find the courtroom in which the case will be heard. A court docket with a list of names will be posted outside the courtrooms, or the courthouse staff can assist the person with locating the correct courtroom. Once the courtroom is opened, all defendants, attorneys, and members of the public may enter, unless the judge closes the courtroom for a particular case.
Pictured is a simplified version of the basic steps of the adult court process. For more information on the criminal justice system or the court process, please visit our Frequently Asked Questions page.
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