By Magistrate Daniel P. Kitchen
Recently as I drove to an area school for a presentation, I reflected on the many ways laws benefit all of us. Traffic laws regulate use of the roads, keeping us safe from ourselves and one another. Our Constitution prevents the police from stopping motorists for no good reason, allowing more security in travel. To be convicted of a traffic offense, the prosecutor must prove the offense beyond a reasonable doubt, elevating our liberty interests as a priority. In Iowa, and all of America, we are protected by a strong, invisible shield of laws. Those protections are made real in court.
I serve as a judicial magistrate — a 24/7 responsibility in the state of Iowa. Magistrates are the entry point for nearly all criminal cases in our state. We conduct initial appearances, where people charged with crimes are informed of the charges and their rights, and the strength of the case against them is reviewed to make sure the state has shown “probable cause” for the case to go forward. This has to happen within 24 hours of an arrest.
Some magistrate work is dealing with emergencies and arises at all hours, day or night. For example, magistrates address applications to have people suffering from serious mental impairment or substance abuse taken into protective custody for evaluation and treatment. Also, when law-enforcement officers seek judicial permission to search a home, it is usually the local magistrate who examines the application and decides whether to grant a search warrant.
Magistrates also preside over trials at the courthouse during business hours, handling both jury and non-jury proceedings for simple misdemeanor crimes, such as traffic, bad checks and shoplifting, assault, disorderly conduct, domestic violence and many others. People with disputes involving $5,000 or less may litigate them using the streamlined small-claims process and schedule that magistrates oversee. Magistrates also officiate in civil marriage ceremonies — at the courthouse or in other venues, such as homes, reception halls or parks.
Since the magistrate position is deemed “part time” by Iowa law, most of these judges also maintain a law office separate from their courthouse chambers. We are able to help private clients in legal matters unrelated to our magistrate duties but do not appear in cases that could otherwise come before us as judges.
In a variety of ways, Iowa magistrates deliver the protections of the law to the people of our state every day. For each citizen, the benefit of these laws can be experienced in the security of our homes and on the move. Think about that the next time you drive on a public road. You won’t see the law or the work of the court in making it real, but you will benefit from its shield of protection.
Judge Kitchen has served as the Washington County Magistrate for nine years and also maintains a private law practice. He may be reached at email@example.com.