A great deal of misdemeanor cases in Georgia, such as DUI, shoplifting, possession of marijuana, and minor traffic infractions begin in Municipal Court. This is because municipal courts exist separately from the State Court system. As an individual sovereignty, the various cities (or “municipalities”) across the state are free to adopt their own laws, called ordinances. These ordinances may or may not also be State law violations. This is the key determination in whether you are permitted to “bind your case over” to State Court. The law controlling whether a case may be bound over will be discussed below.
What does “binding a case over” mean?
Imagine yourself seated in a municipal courtroom appearing for a DUI charge. The judge will instruct you that when your name is called you are to make an “announcement” on what you want to do with your case. The judge will likely say your options are: (1) guilty; (2) nolo contendere; or (3) not guilty. If you answer (3) not guilty, the judge will normally tell you your case will be scheduled for a bench trial in municipal court where the same judge will be deciding your case (rather than a jury). What the municipal court judge often does not tell you is that one of your options in pleading “not guilty” is to request a jury trial on the case. When you request a jury trial, and the charge is eligible to be bound over, the case is then removed from the hands of the Municipal Court and is bound over to the State Court system to the county in which the Municipal Court resides.
For example, if your case begins in the Municipal Court of Atlanta, Municipal Court of Dunwoody, Municipal Court of Alpharetta, or any other Municipal Court within Fulton County, your case will be bound over to Fulton County State Court. Once the case is bound over, the case essentially hangs out in limbo for a while (could be weeks or several months depending on jurisdiction) unless or until the case becomes “accused” in State Court. When a case becomes “accused,” this simply means the State Court (through the prosecutor’s office) has picked up the case and charges have now been formally brought in State Court.
It is important to note that for misdemeanor cases in Georgia, the State has two years to accuse the case measured from the date of arrest. If the case is not accused within this two year period, the State is prevented from prosecuting the matter under the statue of limitations. Also, the State Court prosecutor has the authority to add, amend, dismiss, or reduce the charges. Therefore, the charges in State Court could be different than the ones you were facing in Municipal Court.
There is a great benefit to binding the case over to State Court. Not only are you entitled to a jury trial, but you also have a better opportunity to fight the case through motions challenges. These are largely unavailable in Municipal Court. Furthermore, State Court prosecutors seem to be more receptive to plea negotiations for more serious charges where their Municipal Court counterparts rarely budge. You also get two bites at the apple by starting the case in Municipal Court. If the Municipal Court prosecutor is unwilling to reduce or dismiss the charges, then the decision is easy, bind the case over to State Court and renew negotiations there.
Is My Case Eligible to Be Bound Over?
Article I, Section I, Paragraph XI of the Georgia Constitution of 1983 guarantees a defendant in a criminal case the “inviolate” right to a “public and speedy trial by an impartial jury.” GA CONST Art. 1, § 1, ¶ XI. However, Georgia courts recognize that some cases are not eligible to be bound over to State or Superior Court by distinguishing crimes, “which are solely violations of local or municipal ordinances[,]” versus crimes where the offense is a violation of an ordinance as well as a misdemeanor under State law. Geng v. State, 276 Ga. 4825 (2002). Where the offense is both a violation of local ordinance and a state level offense, the State Court of the county where the alleged incident took place would have “concurrent jurisdiction” over the case. O.C.G.A. § 15-7-4. If the State Court has concurrent jurisdiction over the matter, then the case is eligible to be bound over.
If you or someone you know has been arrested for driving under the influence, contact the law firm of W. Scott Smith at 404.581.0999 today for a free case evaluation. You’ll find a local Atlanta DUI attorney ready to aggressively fight on your behalf. You can also find out more detailed information about Atlanta laws here.