Georgia’s Court System

The Georgia Court System - A Guide to the CourtsIf you face a criminal charge in Georgia, it helps to know what to expect from the court system.

Georgia’s court system is complex, with several types of courts able to hear criminal cases and two separate review courts to hear appeals.

The team at The Law Office of Adam D. Brown will make sure that you understand the criminal justice process if Adam is representing you in a criminal defense case. 

In the meantime, the following information will help you familiarize yourself with the process and the various courts that you may have to appear in.

Trial Courts of General Jurisdiction 

The Superior Court in Georgia is a trial court of general jurisdiction. It generally hears cases that involve felony offenses, domestic relations cases, and civil matters, amongst other cases.

The court has civil and criminal jurisdiction, presiding over felony trials, divorce cases, and more. It also has the power in appeals to correct errors made by some of the limited jurisdiction courts. 

There are 49 superior court circuits in Georgia (made up of one or more counties) with each circuit having a chief superior court judge. 

Trial Courts of Limited Jurisdiction

Limited jurisdiction courts hear less severe criminal cases than the Superior Court: typically, traffic and criminal misdemeanor cases. They also hear civil cases involving lesser amounts of money than in the Superior Court. Some smaller judicial circuits may not have all of these limited jurisdiction courts in place, but they all do have a Superior Court.

You could appear in several different types of court depending on the nature of the criminal or civil matter, your age, and your circumstances:

State Court 

If you are charged with a traffic violation, your case will likely be handled by State Court, which has jurisdiction within one county only. State Courts also try civil matters that are not taken on by the Superior Court. Not all jurisdictions have a State Court.

Juvenile Court

Juvenile Court handles all alleged delinquency cases, as well as dependency and “Child in Need of Services” (CHiNS) cases. This court specializes in protecting the best interests, emotional, mental, and physical welfare of children.

It hears cases involving minors who require help or counseling, especially those who are abused, neglected, or without a parent/guardian. The court also hears cases from minors seeking consent to marry or enlist in the military.

The juvenile court also hears traffic violation cases of individuals under the age of 17.

Note that juveniles between the ages of 13 to 17 who commit certain violent felonies may have their original case heard in a Superior Court. 

Probate Court 

If you are involved in the administration of an estate, probate will be handled by the applicable Probate Court in the county where the estate is.

Probate judges also have other powers, including issuing marriage licenses and licenses to carry weapons, ordering involuntary hospitalization of an incapacitated individual, and appointing legal guardians. 

If there is no State Court in your county, the Probate Court may also hear traffic violations and certain misdemeanor offenses.

Magistrate Court 

If you are the subject of a warrant, a civil claim involving less than $15,000, or you are charged with a minor criminal offense, the preliminary hearing or bail hearing may be heard by the Magistrate Court. 

Civil disputes like county ordinance violations and landlord/tenant cases are often handled by the county’s Magistrate Court too, and people often represent themselves rather than engaging an attorney.

Municipal Court 

Municipal courts are city courts that usually hear cases involving traffic offenses and local ordinance/violation cases (e.g., noise violations; adult dancing license violations; beverage licenses). 

In some cities, they may also conduct preliminary criminal hearings and issue warrants, as well as presiding over cases of misdemeanor shoplifting, criminal trespass, and possession of marijuana.

Courts of Review 

Two main courts in Georgia handle reviews of legal cases: The Supreme Court of Georgia and the Court of Appeals.

The primary objective of both courts is to review cases that were tried in limited and general jurisdiction courts to determine if procedural mistakes or errors of law were made that led to an incorrect outcome.

Court of Appeals of Georgia 

Georgia State Capitol Building

The Court of Appeals will have jurisdiction over your case if you are successful with an application to appeal a decision in a civil or criminal case decided in the trial courts. In a criminal case, you have the right to appeal after a conviction, and but you must ask for permission to appeal during the pendency of the criminal case (application for interlocutory review).

Generally, the only basis for appeal is if a legal error was made and it is the Court of Appeals’ job to assess whether procedural errors or errors of law were made by the lower court.

One of five panels of judges will review the trial transcript, the court record, and briefs submitted by the attorneys before making a final decision. Oral arguments may be requested.

Supreme Court of Georgia 

The Supreme Court of Georgia is the highest court in the state and has the responsibility of overseeing the legal profession and the judiciary.

It is responsible for ruling on the constitutionality of state statutes, as well as all criminal cases that involve a death sentence and petitions from decisions of the Court of Appeals (petitioner for a Writ of Certiorari). 

Cases are heard by Supreme Court Justices (note, they are referred to as “Justice,” not “Judge”) who review trial transcripts, case records, and legal briefs prepared by attorneys. 

Sometimes a federal court will ask the Georgia Supreme Court for its interpretation of a Georgia matter as well.

The Georgia Criminal Process

Following is a summary of the main processes you will go through if you are arrested and charged with a crime in Georgia.

The pretrial procedure

Generally, if you are arrested for a crime in Georgia, there are several initial “pretrial” steps that you will need to go through:

  1. Booking – at the jail or  police station after your arrest, your name will be formally listed along with the crime(s) that you are accused of, and you will be photographed and fingerprinted. Your personal property will be stored and you are usually allowed to make a phone call(s).
  2. Initial appearance your initial appearance will usually be within 48-72 hours at a magistrate court, oftentime by video conference. If you were arrested by a city (like Atlanta), that initial appearance may occur at a municipal court. The court will make sure that you understand the charges against you and usually check if you have hired legal representation (if not, you may be appointed representation by the court). At the initial appearance, the judge may also set bond or deny bond.
  3. Bond / Bail your bond (sometimes called “bail”)  will be set by the judge. This allows you to be released until your criminal case is resolved. With rare exception, if you are charged with only misdemeanors, you have a right to have a bond set (it may be a high bond). If you are charged with a family violence offense, or a felony, the judge may or may not set a bond. If you a repeat offender or accused of a major felony (such as murder, rape or armed robbery) bond may not be granted.

The preliminary hearing (also known as a “probable cause hearing” or “bind over hearing”)

Your preliminary hearing will usually be held in a magistrate court and has two main purposes:

  • To determine whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and the defendant is the person who committed the crime
  • To determine whether the charges brought are appropriate to the acts committed and whether the acts constitute a felony or a misdemeanor

This hearing does not try to establish guilt or innocence – only that the correct procedures have been followed in bringing the charges against you and that there is enough evidence to proceed.

If probable cause is established by the prosecution and the case proceeds as a misdemeanor, it is forwarded (“boundover”) to the State Court (if the jurisdiction has a State Court) and the Solicitor General’s office (misdemeanor prosecutor). 

If the case proceeds as a felony, it is forwarded to the Superior Court and the District Attorney’s office.

Capital felony cases in Georgia must be forwarded to the district attorney to be presented to the grand jury. For other less severe felonies, the district attorney may authorize the case to proceed on an “accusation” by filing a document with the court, which generally speeds up the process.

The Formal Charges (Indictment if felony, or Accusation if misdemeanor)

Whether or not a case is presented to a grand jury, a grand jury will decide whether to indict (formally charge) you if you are accused of a felony.

This will be made up of 16-23 randomly selected voters from the county where your case is heard. The jury will base its decision on the evidence from the district attorney and it will issue either:

  • A “true bill” of indictment, which formally indicts you
  • A “no bill” of indictment, in which case you will be released and the charges against you dropped

If your case is a misdemeanor, the prosecutor may opt not to take your case to the grand jury, and instead will file what is called an “accusation.” This is simply a formal charging document that the prosecutor files, stating that the prosecutor believes there to be probable cause for the case to proceed.

Arraignment (pleading guilty or not guilty)

The arraignment is held in either State Court  or Superior Court. The judge will read the charges against you and you will be asked to enter either a guilty or not guilty plea.

For a not guilty plea, a trial date will be set and, providing bail has been granted, you are free to leave and return to court on the allotted date.

Accepting a sentence (i.e. “pleading guilty”) is the other option, and there are numerous types of them that will end up with the court sentencing you. To name a few, there are: negotiated guilty pleas, non-negotiated guilty pleas, “Alford pleas,” no contest pleas, First Offender pleas, Conditional Discharge pleas, diversion pleas, and “Stinson pleas” into an accountability court. If you decide to enter one of these pleas, the judge will hold a plea hearing to determine if you understand the rights you are giving up. The court will also determine the sentence.

Sometimes a “no contest” (also known as a “nolo” or “nolo contendere”) plea can be entered. This means that you will not contest the charges against you and will not attempt to prove your innocence or disprove your possible guilt. It generally leads to a conviction but may sometimes be used to avoid collateral consequences, such as license suspensions, or civil penalties.

Sentencing

Before the sentencing hearing, the court will usually investigate whether any mitigating circumstances help explain why the crime was committed. 

At the sentencing hearing, your past criminal record will also be considered, as will any mitigating or aggravating circumstances.

Plea Bargaining

With a “not guilty” plea, the case will usually proceed to trial. Before then (or at any stage of the process) the prosecutor may meet with your defense attorney for a plea bargain (negotiation) process.

Plea bargains can save everyone time and may be able to settle the case without a trial. They are often encouraged by judges as they lower the caseload for the courts. HOWEVER, if you want to fight your case, you should. You have a constitutional right to a jury trial, and using that right is the great almost-equalizer in our criminal justice system.

What is a court-supervised DUI treatment program in Georgia?

In Georgia, DUI court is often seen as a way to escape the most serious consequences of a DUI conviction.

During the plea-bargaining process, your lawyer may accept that DUI court is the best option for you if you have multiple drug or alcohol-related offenses on your record and require treatment. It is a term of probation to help you avoid excessive jail time.

While it can protect you from the harshest penalties, it is no easy ride. It may involve weekly court appearances, drug or alcohol testing, intensive counseling, and a fourth amendment waiver that allows DUI Court officials to access your home and vehicle.  

You must remain 100 percent accountable during the program and cannot afford any slipups or you will face more time in class, more community service, or even more time in jail than if you had simply accepted the initial punishment upfront.

So, the bottom line is that you should only consider this option if you have discussed the alternatives thoroughly with your criminal defense lawyer, understand what will be expected of you, and are committed to completing the program successfully.

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