It has been a long time since judges ruled on traffic tickets and misdemeanor criminal charges in Clayton. A little more than 46 years to be exact.
But the idea of court in Clayton is back on the table, as the town mulls proposed uses for a building that last hosted a courtroom decades ago.
Town Manager Steve Biggs said he has asked an architect to study the usability of Clayton’s old town hall, which was home to Recorder’s Court until 1968.
The building, currently vacant, could house District Court. State law allows Clayton, Selma and Benson to host satellite courts outside of the Johnston County Courthouse in Smithfield.
Biggs said he’s “entirely open” to using the building for court sessions. “It’s really a council decision,” he said. “There are a lot of good uses for the building. They need to determine what’s in our best interest long term.”
This isn’t the first time Clayton leaders have considered bringing court back to town. The Town Council considered it a decade ago as it debated what to do with the old town hall.
Councilman Michael Grannis said District Court in Clayton would have benefits. The town would find a new use for the vacant building, he said, and Clayton police wouldn’t have to travel the 12 miles to Smithfield every time they had a case heard.
“When I look at those two factors, to me, it’s desirable,” Grannis said.
But the town providing space is but one of several pieces that would have to fall into place before court returned to Clayton.
State law says the Administrative Office of the Courts, the administrative arm of the state’s judicial branch, must also agree to provide or shift personnel, technology and financial resources to fill that space.
Court officials in Johnston County have mixed opinions about satellite courts and starting a new one in Clayton.
Benson is the only town in Johnston that still hosts a satellite District Court. A judge there hears mostly traffic cases on Fridays.
Johnston County Clerk of Court Michelle Ball said she sees pros and cons to satellite courts.
Benson residents seem to like it, she said, because they don’t have to drive to Smithfield to have their cases heard. The satellite location can also reduce the number of people streaming into the Johnston County Courthouse.
On Fridays, Ball loses two clerks from her office to the Benson court, including one who collects payments.
“A lot of people would like to see all court held at the Smithfield courthouse because it’s where the computer systems are; the money is safer there,” Ball said. “You are not dividing staff and sending them to other places.”
Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle said she is no fan of satellite courts.
Doyle said the court in Benson creates problems for her assistant district attorneys. Among other obstacles, prosecutors can’t access related files they often need and don’t have Internet access to check criminal and probation records, she said.
“Defendants and witnesses frequently come to the courthouse in Smithfield on Fridays naturally thinking that is where court is held,” Doyle said in an email. “My office has to tell them to drive to Benson.
“This is frustrating to witnesses, defendants and assistant district attorneys who have to wait half an hour or longer for people to arrive at court.”
Doyle noted also that security issues arise when prisoners have to be transported to the Benson court from the Johnston County jail.
In addition, she said the Benson Municipal Building, which hosts the court session, has no metal detectors to screen people coming into court.
“One of my assistant district attorneys recently encountered a defendant inside the Benson courtroom who had a large knife holstered on his belt,” Doyle said.
Clayton was home to a Recorder’s Court, which handled mostly traffic cases and misdemeanor criminal matters, until 1968, when state law set up a more uniform District Court system across North Carolina.
Selma and Benson, the two other towns authorized to hold District Court sessions, converted their small-town courts into satellite courts. Clayton didn’t apply for a District Court.
The Town of Selma provided space for District Court until 2006, when the Town Council pulled the plug after an inmate was stabbed outside a courtroom and business owners complained about unwanted traffic downtown.
In Benson, Town Manager Matthew Zapp said town leaders appreciate the convenience of the local court.
“We prefer people to drive the speed limit,” he said. “In the event that they don’t, at least they don’t have to drive that 15 miles to the county seat.”
Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104