Citation for Open Container Violation that Omitted Elements Was Sufficient to Confer Jurisdiction

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The North Carolina Supreme Court decided State v. Jones, ___ N.C. ___ (2018) on Friday, affirming the court of appeals’ determination that the citation that charged the defendant with transporting an open container of alcoholic beverage, but left out several elements, was legally sufficient to invoke the trial court’s subject matter jurisdiction.

The citation. The citation in Jones alleged that

“[o]n . . . .Sunday, the 04 day of January, 2015, at 10:16PM in the county named above [defendant] did unlawfully and willfully WITH AN OPEN CONTAINER OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE AFTER DRINKING (G.S. 20-138.7(A))[.]

The offense. G.S. 20-138.7(a) prohibits a person from (1) driving, (2) a motor vehicle, (3) on a highway or the right-of-way of a highway, (4) while there is an alcoholic beverage in the passenger area in other than the unopened manufacturer’s original container, and (5) while the driver is consuming alcohol or while alcohol remains in the driver’s body.

While the citation issued to Jones stated the correct statute, it failed to allege that he was driving a motor vehicle on a highway or the right of way of a highway, that the open alcoholic beverage container was in the passenger area of the motor vehicle, or that he was consuming alcohol or had alcohol remaining in his body.

The procedural history. Jones moved to dismiss the charge in district court on the basis that the citation was fatally defective. The district court denied his motion and found him guilty. Jones appealed and was again convicted in superior court.  He then appealed to the court of appeals, which, in a divided opinion that Jeff blogged about here, found no error. Jones appealed to the state supreme court.

NC Supreme Court’s analysis. The court acknowledged that the bare-bones requirements for citations in G.S. 15A-302 were inconsistent with the general requirements for pleadings in G.S. 15A-924(a)(5).  The former merely requires that the citation “identify the crime charged,” while the latter requires that the pleading “assert facts supporting every element of a criminal offense.” The court noted, however, that the Official Commentary to Article 49 “Pleadings and Joinder” explains why these requirements differ: The rules in G.S. 15A-924(a) that govern the contents of pleadings simply don’t apply to citations.

The Criminal Code Commission, which drafted the official commentary, characterized the lower standard for citations as “reasonable,” since citations are prepared by officers on the scene. G.S. Ch. 15A, Art. 49, Official Commentary. The Commission stated that “rather than get into sufficiency of the pleading in such a case,” it opted to “simply give[] the defendant the right to object and require a more formal pleading. G.S. 15A-922(c).” Id.

The Jones court elaborated upon the rationale for relaxed criminal pleading requirements for citations, stating that they rest on the “practicalities and realities” faced by law enforcement officers, including the “unsettling, unpredictable, and unsecure environment” in which citations are issued. (Slip op. at 14). The court said it was not reasonable to expect officers writing citations in the field to do so with the same degree of “thoroughness and exactness in syntax and grammar” that the grand jury uses to compose an indictment or that a prosecutor uses to draft an information. (Slip op. at 14).

Because the citation charging Jones identified the crime (and met the remaining requirements of G.S. 15A-302), the state supreme court concluded that it authorized the trial court to exercise jurisdiction over the offense. The defendant could have objected to trial by citation and moved for a new pleading, but failed to assert that right in district court. And once he appealed to superior court, his right to demand a new pleading disappeared. Slip op. at 13 (citing State v. Monroe, 57 N.C. App. 597, 599 (1982)).

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