The law that allows self-initiated arrest warrants in North Carolina is a topic of contentious debate.
The N.C. General Statute that makes such arrest warrants possible is 15A-304, which says that judicial officials, which in most cases is the magistrate, may issue an arrest warrant if they are provided “with sufficient information, based on oath or affirmation, to make an independent judgment that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the person to be arrested committed it.”
The controversy centers on where that probable cause comes from. North Carolina law says any person can take out a warrant against anyone by going to the magistrate, meaning a person can basically accuse anyone of anything and it will go through the judicial process. But in most other states, law requires an official investigation conducted by a law enforcement agency before an arrest warrant can be issued.
“I haven’t surveyed all 50 states, but if we’re not unique, we’re pretty close,” Jeff Welty, an assistant professor at the UNC School of Government, said about self-initiated warrants. “It is a distinctive feature of North Carolina law.”
Welty couldn’t comment on why the N.C. General Assembly wrote the law like it did. He did say that the statute itself dated back to at least 1868, though it has been amended several times over the years.
Welty said magistrates recognize that North Carolina’s law is susceptible to abuse, so they adopted a few guiding principles to prevent the issuance of arrest warrants based on meritless complaints.
For one, magistrates will generally not issue arrest warrants for felonies unless law enforcement is involved in the investigation, presumably because of the potential seriousness of the complaint, Welty said.
Also, magistrates in most cases refuse to issue warrants against public officials, law enforcement officers or teachers based solely on a citizen complaint because those groups are viewed as populations that are more likely to be the subject of vexatious allegations.
Even though magistrates have tried to shield citizens from being arrested over frivolous accusations, critics say North Carolina’s law can be easily misused.
Jon David, the district attorney for Brunswick, Columbus and Bladen counties, said that if an arrest warrant is issued against a person, that arrest stays on their record even if the charges are ultimately dismissed. The record can be expunged, but that is an expensive and time-consuming process.
David said the law allows a private individual to invoke the power of the government to make an arrest without any modicum of an investigation. “That presents an opportunity for abuse and it is misused in the system,” he said.
The issue came up two years ago when former Carolina Beach police officer Darrell Collins dropped charges of stalking, communicating threats and assault that he’d taken out against Dan Wilcox, a town councilman and mayor pro tem.
Though the charges were dismissed, David said they will appear on Wilcox’s record.
“It inconveniences people who are wrongly accused,” David said about self-initiated warrants. “I believe the legislature should seriously examine whether we should have self-initiated warrants in North Carolina.”
Date posted: January 4, 2012
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