Changing Charges after State v. Bryant

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Brittany Bryant was charged with misdemeanor larceny for allegedly stealing acne toner and towelettes valued at $14.94 of from a Wal-Mart in Raleigh. The prosecutor agreed to reduce the charge from larceny to shoplifting. She accomplished that in a manner familiar to district court practitioners. She struck through the charging language of the citation, wrote in “shoplifting,” and initialed and dated the document. Bryant then pled guilty to shoplifting by concealing merchandise and was sentenced.

Bryant later sought to set aside her conviction on the basis that the prosecutor improperly amended the citation. The court of appeals agreed, holding in State v. Bryant, ___ N.C. App. ___ (October 1, 2019), that the amendment was improper and deprived the district court of jurisdiction.

Bryant has left many wondering how misdemeanor charges may be amended to charge different, and less serious, offenses without subjecting the convictions to collateral attack.

The court’s reasoning. G.S. 15A-922(f) allows citations (and other pleadings in misdemeanor cases) to be amended when they do not change the nature of the offense charged. Amendments that change a pleading to charge a different offense, in contrast, are not permissible.  See, e.g., State v. Carlton, 232 N.C. App. 62 (2014) (finding that improper amendment of the citation to charge the defendant with a different crime deprived the superior court of jurisdiction over the charges).

Because larceny and shoplifting are separate statutory offenses requiring proof of different elements, the court reasoned that the amendment was not permissible. The impermissible amendment deprived the district court of jurisdiction to enter judgment against the defendant.

That reasoning seems pretty straightforward. So why did the prosecutor in Bryant and many other prosecutors in similar cases view this kind of change as permissible?

A prosecutor may file a statement of charges any time before arraignment in district court. G.S. 15A-922. A statement of charges is a criminal pleading charging a misdemeanor that is signed by a prosecutor. It supersedes all previous pleadings of the State and may charge the same offenses as a previously issued citation or additional or different offenses. G.S. 15A-922(d).

Many people (including me) viewed the district attorney’s amendment of charges stated on the citation by striking through the original language, adding new language, and signing, as procedurally akin to the filing of a statement of charges. Bryant indicates there must be something more.

What is the something more? What if prosecutors had a stamp for “misdemeanor statement of charges” that they could apply to a citation they wished to change? Would that transform the document from an amended citation to a misdemeanor statement of charges?

Or must prosecutors write out new charges on a form especially designated for this purpose? See AOC-CR-120.  If the latter option is favored, can that feasibly take place in district court?  If not, has Bryant won her battle but lost the war for future criminal defendants who seek to plead to different and less serious charges?

I have many questions and few answers after Bryant. Readers, please chime in and share your thoughts.

5 comments on “Changing Charges after State v. Bryant

  1. This holding leaves me baffled. All they’ve done is make it so: 1) less reductions can be offered; 2) reductions will take 100 times as long because a whole misdemeanor statement needs to be drawn up; and 3) there’s more bureaucracy and less justice. It’s going to be interesting to see how much time is spent in district court doing MARs on these now, because I probably did exactly this 10 times a week.

  2. If the D.A. has to start prepping District Court like Superior, and can no longer make decisions and changes on the run as the court session unfolds, our state is going to have some very unhappy, and already overworked, district attorneys. Or, no one ever gets a reduction and since most LEO maximally charge, appropriate or not . . . And can we talk about the case loads of public defenders?

  3. I fail to see a downside here. What’s wrong with a judge doing their job WITHOUT a prosecutor filtering any possible decision before the case gets in front of them? I see nothing more than a LOT of potential cronyism, corruption and political chicanery being stymied by taking this clearly illegal capability, never afforded to them in the first place, away from DA’s and ADA’s.

    • The downside is that it is more paperwork to accomplish the exact same result. Form over substance. The DA has the right to change the charge pre-arraignment. This case just says that have to do it differently than it was done in this case. It is not illegal. It is a capability that has been afforded the DA’s and ADA’s. G.S. 15A-922.

  4. The Court has allowed citations to leave off facts to support every element of the charged crime. The Court did not say that misdemeanor statements of charges can be equally devoid of crucial information, so merely crossing something off and adding the word “shoplifting” cannot make the citation a valid misdemeanor statement of charges because the citation fails to allege facts to support the element of concealment. I imagine if the ADA had modified the citation to actually fit the requirements of a misdemeanor statement of charges the court would have reached a different result in this case. How hard is it for the ADA to write “put the acne toner in her pocket”?

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