What Does a Texas Magistrate Do? You See People in Jail?
If you are confused by the separate duties of magistrate and judge in Texas, how bail works and when a plea is taken, there are specific procedures for each.
I currently serve as an Associate Municipal Court Judge for the City of Hedwig Village, Texas. The City Council appointed me Judge in July 2011.
As a Municipal Court Judge, I fulfill 2 roles. I am a Judge, and I am a Magistrate.
What is a Magistrate and what do they do?
Per the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure “it is the duty of every magistrate to preserve the peace within his jurisdiction by the use of all lawful means; to issue all process intended to aid in preventing and suppressing crime; to cause the arrest of offenders by the use of lawful means in order that they may be brought to punishment.”
A main function of my role as a Magistrate is to perform jail duties. Yes, I see prisoners in jail.
If someone is arrested in the City for an on-site violation by a peace officer (a warrantless arrest) such as running a red light or having no valid driver’s license (both Class C misdemeanors), arrested for a warrant for failing to appear in court, or arrested for a warrant for failing to pay fine and costs after appearing in court, then I will go to the jail and perform either magistration functions and or perform judge duties depending on why the person was arrested.
If the person is arrested for an on-site violation, as the Magistrate, I first must determine if probable cause existed for the arrest. If I do not find that probable cause existed, I must immediately release the defendant. If I determine that probable cause did exist, I inform the person arrested of the charges against them and read certain warning required by law such as the right to remain silent, the right to stop any interview or questioning by peace officers or attorneys representing the state, that they are not required to make a statement and any statement they make can and may be used against them in court, as well as other warnings that must be read.
At this point, I can set bail and the person will be released by posting either a cash or surety bond to secure their appearance in court. Oftentimes on Class C misdemeanors, the Magistrate will release the prisoner on a personal recognizance or PR Bond with a promise to appear in court at a later date.
Typically, peace officers will issue a citation in lieu of arrest. When you are issued a citation, you must sign the citation which states that you will appear in court on a certain date and time. Signing the citation is not an admission of guilt. It is simply a promise to appear in court. If you refuse to sign the citation, the peace officer must place you under arrest and take you before a Magistrate.
For someone arrested for a Class C misdemeanor, after I perform my magistration functions, I can then put on my judge hat and take a plea from the person. If the person pleads guilty or no contest, I accept the plea, enter judgment, assess fine and costs, and accept payment of fine and costs. If the person cannot pay, I have several options to deal with the arrestee, such as giving jail time credit, providing a payment plan, ordering community service, or making an indigency determination.
If the person was arrested on Class C warrant for failing to appear in court, I perform the same functions as stated above, except making the probable cause determination, which was made at the time the warrant of arrest was issued.
If the person was arrested on a warrant for failing to pay their fines and court costs after appearing in court and entering a plea of guilty or no contest, then I, as Judge, must determine whether the person is indigent and failed to make a good faith effort to discharge fines and costs by performing community service which would have caused no undue hardship, or I must determine that the person was not indigent and failed to make a good faith effort to discharge fines and costs. If, after a hearing on the matter and making a written determination, I find that the person arrested failed to meet either criteria, then I can commit the person to jail.
This is a simplified and brief explanation of how jail duties are handled. Also, I only handle Class C misdemeanors for the City, but have the legal authority to handle Class A, Class B, and felony offenses. Harris County handles those higher level offenses for the City.
[Note of interest: In Texas, you cannot be arrested for speeding or having an open container in your motor vehicle. You may only be issued a citation. Fun fact of the day!]