LOGAN, W.Va. — Law and order in Logan County has entered the spotlight.
A recent story conducted by a television news outlet exposed an alleged rift between law enforcement and the judicial system in Logan County leaving some with more questions than answers.
The report claimed 65 percent of cases and tickets in Logan County Magistrate Court were being dismissed.
The report noted charges dismissed because of plea agreements were not included in that figure.
Reasons for the dismissals; however, were not explored.
During the Logan Banner’s investigation in the basement of the Logan County Courthouse, it was discovered Logan County’s three magistrates fielded around 8,000 cases in 2016 — around 10 percent of those were felonies and the rest were misdemeanors.
A magistrate does not adjudicate felony cases, but they do set bail for defenants who face most felony charges.
In-depth examination of each and every one of the cases from Logan County magistrate court would mean pouring over tens-of-thousands of pages of case files and citations.
Master lists of misdemeanor and felony cases that went through magistrate court provide only cursory information on how each charge was ultimately handled.
The master lists alone stack nearly as high as an unopened package of 500 sheets of printer paper.
Logan County magistrate Dwight Williamson was featured in the television report and he told the Logan Banner there are very few reasons a magistrate could dismiss a case on their own.
Without a motion from the prosecutor, Williamson noted the main reason a magistrate would dismiss case if a defendant spent more time in jail than the law allows before being arraigned, but Williamson added this situation does not often occur.
Williamson noted when most dismissals occur, it is because a prosecutor either files a motion to do so or the prosecutor signs off on a request to dismiss from a magistrate or victim.
A reportedly common reason a magistrate would request a ticket or charge be dismissed involves motor vehicle infractions.
If, during a traffic stop, a driver is cited for not being able to produce proof of insurance or for having defective equipment, the driver is often given a chance to fix the issue.
If the driver can provide a magistrate with proof their vehicle was insured at the time of the traffic stop or with evidence they have repaired their defective equipment, the magistrate can submit a request to the prosecutor that the charge would be dropped.
The prosecutor still has latitude to decide if the whether or not the charge is dropped.
During further discussion, it was explained how defendants move through magistrate court.
Anyone arrested on the charge of any misdemeanor and most felonies must appear before a magistrate to be arraigned.
During the arraignment, the magistrate is given the facts of the case and a decision is made on bail.
Because arraignments do not decide a defendant’s guilt, the defendant is still presumed innocent at this stage and bail is often granted — unless a defendant is already out on bail.
After the defendant is arraigned, a preliminary hearing is scheduled.
During a preliminary hearing, a defendant will enter a plea for the crime of which are they are accused, evidence will be presented and a defendant or their legal counsel will the chance to question the arresting officer about the details of the case.
During the preliminary hearing, a magistrate must decide if the facts of the case provide a reasonable probability the defendant committed the crime.
If the defendant pleads innocent, but the magistrate finds probable cause to believe they could be guilty, the case moves to the trial phase.
If the defendant faces misdemeanor charges, the case will be heard in magistrate court.
If the defendant faces felony charges, the case will be transferred to circuit court — a magistrate cannot act as judge in a felony case.
The preliminary hearing is reportedly a large source of dismissed misdemeanor cases.
In cases were a defendant faces both felony and misdemeanor counts, prosecutors reportedly often offer defendants a deal where a defendant waives their right to a preliminary hearing, and, in exchange, the prosecutor files a motion to dismiss the misdemeanor charges the defendant faces.
Williamson explained the deal is offered so frequently because it saves time and money for both sides of the legal system saying the vast majority of defendants who are offered the deal waive their right to a preliminary hearing accept because it saves them money on legal fees and reduces the amount of charges they face.
Once the defendant agrees to the deal and wavies their right to a preliminary hearing, the remaining felony charges are transferred to circuit court.
Williamson noted serious misdemeanors are not dismissed in this way, and those defendants will have separate trials in circuit court for their felony charges and in magistrate court for their misdemeanor charges.
The Logan Banner is working to further investigate this case and more articles concerning the outcome of our investigations will be published.
Owen Wells is a reporter for Civitas Media. He can be reached at 304-752-6950 or by email at [email protected]