I recently received an email that began “I have been reading in the news that Sheriff Mike Cain of Yadkin County pled guilty to eight misdemeanors. I am curious how the Superior Court had jurisdiction [since the case was not an appeal, but rather one of original jurisdiction].” The author suggested that the answer might make an interesting blog post, and I agree.
In the case of former Sheriff Cain, the answer appears to be straightforward. The Winston-Salem Journal reports here that Mr. Cain agreed “to plead guilty to charges related to maintaining a secret bank account and using county funds for a personal Harley-Davidson motorcycle.” Specifically, he “pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts of conversion of property by a bailee. He had faced six felony counts of the same crime. He also pleaded guilty to one count of private use of a publicly owned vehicle, one count of willfully failing to discharge his duties as sheriff and one count of a public official benefiting from a private contract.”
The jurisdiction of the superior court is established by G.S. 7A-271. Subsection (a)(1) of that section gives the superior court jurisdiction over “a misdemeanor . . . [w]hich is a lesser included offense of a felony” that has been indicted or brought by criminal information. And subsection (a)(3) gives the superior court jurisdiction over misdemeanors that are transactionally related to felony charges. Mr. Cain seems to have been charged with felony violations of G.S. 14-168.1, which gave the superior court jurisdiction over the lesser included misdemeanor violations and over the additional transactionally related misdemeanors.
Before I read the newspaper report, though, I wondered if the answer might be more exotic. Subsection (a)(2) of G.S. 7A-271 gives the superior court jurisdiction over misdemeanors “[w]hen the charge is initiated by presentment.” What’s a presentment? Well, as defined by G.S. 15A-641(c), it is a
written accusation by a grand jury, made on its own motion and filed with a superior court, charging a person, or two or more persons jointly, with the commission of one or more criminal offenses. A presentment does not institute criminal proceedings against any person, but the district attorney is obligated to investigate the factual background of every presentment returned in his district and to submit bills of indictment to the grand jury dealing with the subject matter of any presentments when it is appropriate to do so.
In other words, a presentment is a way for the grand jury to sua sponte tell the district attorney to check into a possible crime. If the prosecutor finds a crime, he or she can submit an indictment for it, even if the crime is a misdemeanor that otherwise would be charged in district court. See generally State v. Birdsong, 325 N.C. 418 (1989); State v. Gunter, 111 N.C. App. 621 (1993). Prosecutors sometimes ask grand juries to consider a presentment — which is perfectly proper, see G.S. 15A-628(a)(4) — in misdemeanor cases that are high profile, involve public officials, or otherwise are certain to be appealed if brought in district court. In other words, if the case is going to end up in superior court anyway, and it deserves the greater level of formality available there, bringing it by presentment, then indictment, may make sense. But again, that doesn’t appear to have happened in Mr. Cain’s case.
If there are other circumstances in which presentments are used, please let me know privately or post a comment. They’re pretty unusual so I may be missing a wrinkle or two.