Criminal Courts – The Basics


Generally (with some exceptions), offenses carrying a fine and/or up to 30 days in jail are usually handled in the municipal and magistrate courts. Your “prosecutor” may be the arresting officer or a skilled attorney and the matter is presided over by a city or magistrate judge. If you are given a blue ticket by an officer, the ticket will contain a court date. You do not want to miss your court date.

It is highly recommended that you consult an attorney before your court date to determine your best avenue for relief and what defenses might be available to you. Keep in mind that some convictions carry serious consequences in addition to a fine and/or jail time. For example, some convictions require suspension of your driver’s license for certain periods of time. Other offenses may carry “graduated” penalties. In other words, if arrested for a second offense, the penalties and consequences you are facing may be greater. Further, many convictions are not eligible for expungement. Convictions can have an effect on your employment, scholarships, gun rights, and other issues. As defenses and potential consequences are case specific, contact an attorney to discuss the facts and circumstances of your particular case. To schedule a free consultation with Joe McCulloch and/or Kathy Schillaci, contact us today.


There are basically two levels of state criminal court in South Carolina. Our magistrate and city courts that generally (with some exceptions) handle matters carrying the potential for a fine and/or up to thirty days in jail. For state offenses carrying the potential for more serious consequences, an accused may be summoned to General Sessions Court. Some of the terms (“preliminary hearing,” “appearance dates”) can be confusing, and it is important to have an attorney to guide the accused through the process. Joe McCulloch, a former prosecutor, has navigated the criminal courts for nearly 40 years with hundreds of criminal trials “under his belt.”

Terms You May Hear

“Preliminary Hearing”

In General Sessions, you may be entitled to a probable cause hearing. At this hearing, if requested, the arresting officer must prove to a judge that he had probable cause to arrest you. The accused is not allowed to present evidence and hearsay is admissible. It is uncommon for cases to be dismissed at the preliminary hearing level because the standard (probable cause) is much lower than the standard in criminal court for convictions, which is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Even if your charge is dismissed at the preliminary hearing, the solicitor’s office (the prosecutors) can still present your case to a Grand Jury to see if it will indict you. If the grand jurors decide there is probable cause to arrest you, then an Indictment will be issued. As the Grand Jury occurs in private, neither you nor your attorney will be present.

“First Appearance”

For more serious offenses, the bond judge will give the accused a “first appearance” date at General Sessions Court. For Richland County offenses, unless instructed otherwise, the First Appearance (“Roll Call”) will occur at the courthouse located at 1701 Main, Columbia, SC 29201. The accused MUST appear on the assigned date or a bench warrant will be issued for him or her. At the First Appearance, the Court (but generally not a judge) will inquire into whether the accused is represented by counsel and will give the accused a “Second Appearance” date. It is important that the accused dress appropriately and not leave the courthouse until excused by the court.

“Second Appearance”

On the Second Appearance date, the accused and his/her attorney will give notice to the solicitor’s office as to whether he/she intends to go forward with trial or enter a plea. By this point, the accused should have been provided “discovery” by the prosecution. The “discovery” can consist of witness statements, statements by the accused, incident reports, documents, video, and other evidence the prosecutor intends to use during the trial of the case.

Plea, Trial, or other Resolution

Unfortunately, neither the accused nor his or her attorney control the “docket” and as such, cannot control how long it takes for a case to be resolved. The accused may be eligible for a diversionary program such as PTI, certain evidence and defenses may come to play that require the prosecutor to dismiss the case, or the matter may be resolved through plea (to the original or lesser charge) or trial. The attorney’s role is to guide the accused through each step in the pre-trial process, advance all available defenses and positions, and, where necessary, assist the accused with pleas and/or trial.