It’s 2 a.m. in north Mecklenburg. In a normally quiet and peaceful neighborhood, a young woman needs help. There’s fear concerning her boyfriend. His quick temper, unstable behavior and violent acts have worsened. She’s afraid of what might happen.
Unsure of her options, but convinced she needs to do something, she leaves her house to file a complaint. At the nearest police department, eager to document her claims and secure legal protection, she learns her journey is far from over. She’s safe at the police station. But to file a protective order, she must appear in person before a magistrate. And to do that, she needs to drive to uptown Charlotte.
It’s a scenario local law enforcement officials and town leaders say happens too often to be ignored. But what worries them more is what sometimes happens next. They say, as often as not, the frustrated victim forgoes the solo predawn trek to Fourth Street in Charlotte and, instead, returns to the powder keg waiting at home, hoping nothing happens to re-light the fuse.
“We are hearing there are a large number of spousal abuse cases and other domestic situations that go unreported,” Davidson Mayor Rusty Knox said, “and they don’t get fully investigated because it’s such a burden to file the charges. It’s an unacceptable situation. We have to find a way to fix it.”
The “situation” involves a scarcity of magistrates and the fact that those assigned to Mecklenburg are stationed in Charlotte and already have full schedules. And as Cornelius Police Chief Bence Hoyle explained, in terms of law enforcement and judicial proceedings, “Everything goes through a magistrate.”
The “fix” will require legislative action.
And a unified effort involving police chiefs and administrators from all north Mecklenburg towns, with support from county officials, is now underway to get help in Raleigh to obtain more magistrate access for northern end communities.
Time for a new look
At the March 19 Huntersville town board meeting, in an update about efforts to secure more magistrates for north Mecklenburg, Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla said, “There are a lot of moving parts on this.”
In the days that followed, the mayors of Cornelius and Davidson, the police chiefs in Davidson and Cornelius, the chief magistrate in Mecklenburg County – who lives in Huntersville – and the county manager each added their own perspectives. And all of their comments validated the last part of Aneralla’s statement to the Huntersville board: “and we’re all moving in the same direction.”
The goal is to get legislators in Raleigh to consider increasing the number of magistrates assigned in the 26th Judicial District, which includes all of Mecklenburg County.
“The plan is to ask the General Assembly for a methodology for more magistrates,” Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said, adding she expects the item to be a priority when county commissioners adopt a list of issues they want state legislators to consider. “It’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time.”
Currently, 34 magistrates are assigned to fill 33.5 full-time magistrate positions providing legal and civil services for all Mecklenburg law enforcement agencies and the county’s 1.07 million residents.
Since 2008, the last time there was an organized push from north Mecklenburg leaders for a satellite magistrate office, the county’s population has increased by more than 200,000. Total population in the three north Mecklenburg towns has increased by about 23,000. And the 26th Judicial District has added 1.5 magistrate positions.
“I think everyone knows our population has grown significantly, and the number of magistrates to serve the people has remained pretty much the same,” Cornelius Mayor Woody Washam said. “I believe there is universal agreement that we need this. The focus now is on figuring out how to fund it.”
Magistrates oversee the first procedural steps in most criminal cases and initiate or authorize most civil proceedings. Funding for magistrate positions comes from the state. According to information posted by the North Carolina Court System, statewide there are 674.6 full-time magistrate positions providing services for the state’s 10 million-plus residents. That’s about one magistrate for every 15,000 people. In Mecklenburg, the current ratio is closer to one magistrate for every 31,000 people.
Khalif Rhodes, the 26th Judicial District’s chief magistrate, is in charge of the county’s magistrate operations. He said he is aware of the efforts to enhance magistrate services in north Mecklenburg and has had numerous conversations about the issue with Huntersville Police Chief Cleveland Spruill.
Rhodes, chief magistrate for about a year, said he understands the concerns, especially in cases that require an individual to travel to uptown Charlotte late at night. Rhodes said he hopes a satisfactory solution can be found, but he also stressed the issue boils down to numbers and dollars at the state level.
“Do I understand having magistrates assigned in north Mecklenburg would be more convenient? Yes,” Rhodes said. “Is there a need? I do believe there is.”
“But I think there is a need across the board,” he added. “I am 100 percent in favor of what is being proposed about creating a satellite office but not any change that would be addition by subtraction – taking a magistrate away from the services they are currently providing”.
“I’m absolutely behind any effort to make it easier for people to seek justice,” he added, “but it comes down to money.”
And ways to get that money have been the topic of several meetings involving local mayors, police chiefs, town managers, Diorio and District Court Judge Regan Miller, who is the legal supervisor of the judicial district’s magistrates.
“We discussed this and everyone is on board, including the judge,” Aneralla said. “There is agreement this is needed, but the question is funding. We need the state to step up.”
“There seems to be a lot of support,” Washam said. “We need to get through the paperwork and the government red tape and get this done for our citizens.”
Local funding involvement
Expenditures to provide full access to magistrate services in north Mecklenburg would be significant.
Rhodes and officials from each town estimate that to adequately provide 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week service – a requirement for magistrate duties – five full-time positions would be needed. And Knox said in one local meeting he learned that base pay for magistrate positions ranges from $42,000 to $47,000 a year. That doesn’t include benefits and other standard expenditures for state employees.
The mayors, along with Davidson Town Manager Jamie Justice, said their conversations have addressed the finances and the possibility of town participation to make regional magistrate services a reality.
“This would be a heavy financial lift for the state,” Justice said, “and all of those involved understand that. We have talked about a scenario involving the state carving off some of the money and the towns pitching in to help.”
A short session item?
If legislative changes to enhance magistrate services in north Mecklenburg are discussed in Raleigh, it would most likely begin with north Mecklenburg’s representatives in the General Assembly. And Sen. Jeff Tarte and Rep. John Bradford, both residents of Cornelius, have been included in many of the local conversations.
Mayors Aneralla, Knox and Washam referenced a strong state economy and this year’s pending elections as factors that could convince General Assembly members to consider increases in magistrate funding, possibly starting in the legislative short session that begins in May.
“I think this is an ideal time for this discussion,” Knox said. “It’s sort of a perfect storm in terms of the political climate.”
Washam said the time is right for it.
“It seems the stars are aligned to get this issue on the table in Raleigh,” Washam said, “and politically, there is a good feeling about getting this addressed.”
Cornelius’ Hoyle, who has been in local law enforcement for several decades – and remembers when north Mecklenburg had two full-time magistrates 20 years ago – thinks the issue will be discussed by legislators, but funding will remain a substantial hurdle.
“I believe Jeff and John will present a bill,” Hoyle said, “but it would have to be approved by the entire state, and I don’t know that other legislators are going to want to spend extra money to serve Mecklenburg.”
But Hoyle believes initiating the conversation will be a step toward better services.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll see some type of changes now that there is a consistent, unified effort by all three towns in the north end,” he said. “I don’t think there is any doubt the need exists – it did 20 years ago. And the best argument is still that we need to provide better access to the system for the public.”
All those involved in the local conversations acknowledge finances as a major consideration. And so are the logistics, although most agree a satellite magistrate office at the Huntersville police station would fit north Mecklenburg’s needs.
But the primary focus remains finding a better way to serve individuals caught in that 2 a.m. nightmare.
“The real hardship is on the residents,” Davidson Police Chief Penny Dunn said. “The core issue is the current system creates obstacles for those asking for help. It causes complications for citizens already dealing with bad situations. It’s a need we should address.”