WILMINGTON — After several recent incidents where suspects with long criminal records and even outstanding warrants have been released shortly after being arrested, many have asked how and why the New Hanover County court system has allowed this to happen.
Much of the issue comes down to the role of magistrates.
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Magistrates are a key component in early criminal case proceedings and are typically the ones responsible for setting a bond for the arrested; trends in New Hanover County show magistrates offering repeat offenders little to no bond, releasing accused and convicted criminals back into the general population.
According to the North Carolina Judicial Branch website, “In most cases, when you have been arrested for a pending criminal charge, you have a right to have a judge or magistrate set conditions of pretrial release, commonly called ‘bail’ or ‘bond.’ This generally occurs when you are first arrested and brought before a judicial official (usually a magistrate) for an ‘initial appearance.’ The conditions of release may include paying or promising money to the court as a way of ensuring that you will return for your court dates.”
There are two different types of bonds: a secured bond and an unsecured bond.
An unsecured bond is a contract between you and the State. It is a written agreement that you will come to court, including the promise of an amount of money that you will owe the court if you fail to appear for any of your court dates. When a bond is unsecured, you do not have to pay the amount of the bond in advance in order to be released from jail, according to the North Carolina Judicial Branch
A secured bond is one that requires an amount of money to actually be provided as assurance the payee will return to court or forfeit the money.
A history of crime
Magistrate judges in New Hanover County are responsible for setting the initial bond for individuals at the time of arrest and district court judges are then able to adjust the bond during a first appearance, according to Samantha Dooies, assistant to the District Attorney.
These magistrate judges have full access to pending charges, as well as the criminal history of arrested individuals. Even with the comprehensive history for an arrested induvial, New Hanover County magistrates have continued to release alleged criminals without requiring anything more than a signature and a promise to appear.
Related story: Despite outstanding warrants, arrest for recent string of larcenies, man released on unsecured bond
Most recently was the case of David Age, who was released just hours after he was arrested for breaking into Lou’s Flower World and stealing thousands of dollars worth of merchandise.
“He was charged with five counts of habitual larceny, two counts of breaking and entering felony, two counts of felony larceny, and conspiracy breaking and entering building felony larceny,” according to Wilmington Police Department Spokeswoman Jennifer Dandron.
Age also has an extensive history of larceny, failure to appear to court, possession of drugs, and more. Over the last four decades, he has been arrested dozens of times in Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties and charged with hundreds of offenses.
Magistrate Laura Barnes released Age with a $75,000 unsecured bond. The Wilmington Police Department issued a statement on the rapid release of a habitual offender without any monetary collateral required.
“While we certainly support the practices of our criminal justice system, we are gravely concerned that individuals like Mr. Age have been given easy access to re-offend at the expense of our community. The safety and well-being of our citizens is of the utmost importance and must be given every consideration during this criminal justice process. All we can do at this point is recommend that citizens call the police if you see this individual in your neighborhood conducting suspicious activity,” Spokeswoman Linda Thompson said.
The release of Age is not a unique situation in New Hanover County. In June, Logan Ritchie was arrested by Wilmington Police for breaking and entering in a motor vehicle as well as unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
Ritchie had recently been released for a previous offense on a $125,000 secured bond. When police arrested Ritchie for the separate offense, Magistrate Jeffrey Ryan issued Ritchie a $10,000 unsecured bond, allowing him to leave the courthouse in exchange for only a signature.
According to Dandron, “Ritchie is a suspect in numerous home, business and motor vehicle burglaries. We are asking the public to be on heightened alert for him.”
In May, Jeremy Bernard Holmes was arrested for possession of drugs as well as a handgun. But, as in other cases, Holmes was out of jail before the end of the day.
According to Dandron, “Holmes was released by Magistrate Susan Alborell on a $20,000 unsecured bond.”
In North Carolina, are appointed, not elected like other judges. New Hanover County magistrates are nominated by Clerk of Superior Court Jan G. Kennedy, appointed by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Jay D. Hockenbury, and supervised by Chief District Court Judge Julius H. Corpening.
Corpening responded to questions from Port City Daily, but was unable to speak directly to any particular cases.
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