The Magistrate Court, also called small claims court, is an informal court that handles money claims of less than $15,000, offering a quick and inexpensive process for complaint resolution. This court also issues arrest and search warrants and presides over all county ordinance violations.
Donald Tabor was appointed Chief Magistrate Judge in April, 2012. He appointed two additional magistrates David H. Prather and Dennis L. Brewer. Patsy Alexander is chief clerk and Karen York is deputy clerk. They can be reached at 706-886-6205.
The Stephens County Magistrate Court hears approximately 9,000 civil and criminal matters annually.
The Magistrates' office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. except for legal holidays and days the county has set as furlough days. Trials and hearings are conducted when scheduled by the Court.
The chief magistrate assigns cases, sets court sessions, appoints other magistrates (with the consent of the superior court judges) and sets policy for the magistrate court. The number of magistrates in addition to the chief is usually set by majority vote of the county’s superior court judges.
To qualify as a magistrate, an individual must reside in the county for at least one year preceding his or her term of office, be 25 years of age, and have a high school diploma or its equivalent. A magistrate court judge may also serve as a judge of another limited jurisdiction court in the same county.
The Magistrate Court process is much simpler, less complex and often quicker when it comes to having cases resolved than in other courts. In the Magistrate Court it is not mandatory that you have an attorney for the presentation or defense of your case. Persons representing themselves may present or defend their own cases, whether civil or criminal in nature.
Magistrate Court is a court of inquiry, not a court of record. Although the Civil Practice Act does not apply, the rules of evidence do. Magistrate Court is also the forum in which a majority of the dispossessory, or eviction, actions are filed and addressed. It is also the forum in which violations of county ordinances are addressed. In general, the maximum sentence that can be imposed for violation of any one county ordinance is a $1,000 fine and confinement for 60 days. The Judges of Magistrate Court also handle the Initial Appearance Hearings of individuals arrested on felony warrants.
The civil jurisdiction of Magistrate Court includes dispossessory actions (evictions), garnishments, and general civil actions where the amount of the controversy does not exceed $15,000. A civil case is one where a party seeks money damages from another party for alleged wrongs. The types of civil cases which the Court generally hears are suits for money owed from one party to another, claims for damage to person or property, landlord/tenant disputes, writs of possession matters and breach of contract cases. The only types of civil cases which cannot be considered by Magistrate Court are divorces, cases where equitable relief is sought and issues involving the title to land. All other civil matters may be heard by Magistrate Court, provided the amount in controversy does not exceed $15,000.
Examples of small claims often taken to magistrate court include:
You may file a claim in magistrate court in your own name without an attorney, or you may hire an attorney at your expense. Magistrate court cases are heard and decided by a judge without a jury. In some counties, mediation is recommended or required before a judge will hear the case.
The criminal jurisdiction of Magistrate Court consists of considering and issuing arrest and search warrants, hearing County Ordinance violations and bad check citations, conducting preliminary hearings, First Appearance hearings and setting of bond in most cases. Magistrates may grant bail in cases where the setting of bail is not exclusively reserved to a judge of another court.
The issuance of arrest and search warrants are among the most important duties of the Magistrate Court. The law requires that a "neutral and detached Magistrate" consider sworn testimony before any arrest or search warrant may be issued. Both the United States Constitution and the Georgia Constitution require that a person may only be arrested or his or her home or business searched by law enforcement officials upon a showing of probable cause. Magistrate Judges are available to law enforcement officials 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to consider the applications for arrest and search warrants.
However, there are times when a private individual will seek the arrest of another private individual for an alleged crime. Georgia law was changed a few years ago to require a hearing before an arrest warrant can be issued at the request of a private individual for the arrest of another private individual except in very limited exceptional circumstances. These hearings are referred to as "Pre-warrant Hearings" and Magistrate Judges conduct these hearings on a monthly basis.
Magistrate Court also presides over all county ordinance violations, including possession of alcohol by those under the age of 21, animal control violations, illegal sale of alcohol, disorderly conduct and violations of zoning ordinances. The hearings on these citations occur several times each month. The hearings on County Ordinance violations will be conducted by either the Chief Magistrate Judge or the Associate Magistrate Judge.
Donald Tabor, Chief Magistrate