08/10/04 — Former magistrate faces cocaine charge

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Former magistrate faces cocaine charge

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on August 10, 2004 2:01 PM

A former Wayne County magistrate was arrested Friday after Mount Olive police said they found cocaine in his car during a routine traffic stop.

Gilbert Owens, 49, of Tarheel Place, Mount Olive, was charged Friday with possession of cocaine and driving without a license. He was placed in the Wayne County Jail under a $2,500 unsecured bond.

Owens was speeding on Center Street near East Williamson Street in the early afternoon, Mount Olive Police Chief Emmett Ballree said. "He wasn't going 80 or 90 (mph), but it was fast enough to get the officer's attention."

The officer asked for and received permission to search Owens' vehicle and said he found a small amount of cocaine. Ballree did not know why the officer became suspicious, he said.

Owens was cooperative throughout the incident, the chief said today.

Owens had been a magistrate up until June. He was appointed in December 2002 and would have been up for re-appointment in six months, but he resigned early, saying he wanted to work full time in the ministry.

Owens could not be reached for comment today.

The fact he has been charged with a felony should not cast any doubt on Owens' work as a magistrate, District Attorney Branny Vickory said this morning.

His office is not planning to do any review of current cases in which Owens was involved unless complaints are filed or concerns raised, he said.

Clerk of Court Marshall Minchew said that he had heard complaints about Owens. "There were a few problems, unusual things that happened," Minchew said today. "But he's gone now. It's better for me not to make any statements about him."

Two other people who asked not to be identified said that Owens had closed the magistrate's office at least twice in the middle of the night, went to a nearby bailbond office and asked to borrow money.

Minchew and Superior Court Judge Jerry Braswell had clashed over the appointment of magistrates two years ago. Braswell replaced some of Minchew's nominees with newcomers, saying that he wanted to bring greater diversity to the office.

"Judge Braswell got rid of two good magistrates -- Bob Forsythe and Bob Holmes," Minchew complained.

Owens' appointment was a particular point of contention. He had been convicted of several misdemeanor offenses, including four worthless checks, two speeding violations, four seat-belt violations and a charge of no operator's license. He also had been charged once with possession of drug paraphernalia, but the charge was later dismissed.

State law does not prohibit people with criminal records from being magistrates; it does call for them to be people of high moral character.

Forsythe called Owens' arrest "a slap in the face to the judicial system and the criminal justice system."

Someone with a criminal record should have never been put in that office, he said. "I don't think anybody could say why he was, except Judge Braswell."

Braswell was conducting court in New Hanover County today and could not be reached for comment.

Minchew has already given Braswell several nominees to replace Owens, but an appointment has not yet been made, or at least announced.

Magistrates are appointed for two-year terms. Minchew receives the applications and nominates them. Chief District Court Judge Joseph Setzer supervises them, and Braswell approves the hires.

Magistrates are the lowest-ranking officials in the judicial system. They establish the terms of release for newly arrested defendants -- usually secured or unsecured bonds or written promises -- hold Small Claims Court and conduct weddings.