Court of Appeals: Pleading Standards Are Relaxed for Citations

Last week, the court of appeals decided State v. Allen, a case that holds that the pleading requirements that apply to indictments and other accusatory pleadings don’t necessarily apply to citations. The opinion is helpful to the State, but I think there’s a reasonable chance of further review.

Background. An officer determined that the defendant had been driving after drinking a substantial quantity of “apple pie,” a “concoction of apple juice, cinnamon, and moonshine.” (State’s Brief at 3.) The officer arrested the defendant, who registered 0.23 BAC on a breath test. The officer issued the defendant three citations, charging him with DWI, DWLR, expired tags, expired inspection, and an open container violation. (The citation charging DWI and DWLR was signed by a magistrate, converting it into a magistrate’s order.) It appears that the defendant was convicted of all charged offenses in district court and appealed to superior court. There, the State chose to proceed only on DWI, DWLR, and the open container violation. A jury convicted the defendant on each of those charges, and he appealed.

Defendant’s argument. The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the open container violation because the citation failed to allege an essential element of the offense.

The citation. The top of the citation form alleged that the defendant “did unlawfully and willfully operate a (motor) vehicle on a (street or highway) (public vehicular area).” The officer checked box number 16 on the citation and then wrote by hand: “Transport open container of fortified wine/spirituous liquor unopened original container G.S. 18B-401(a).”

The offense. G.S. 18B-401(a) makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor “for a person to transport fortified wine or spirituous liquor in the passenger area of a motor vehicle in other than the manufacturer’s unopened original container.”

The argument. The defendant argued that the citation “failed to allege that the open container was transported in the passenger area of [the defendant’s] vehicle. The failure of the citation to allege this essential element of the charged offense rendered it fatally defective. As a result, the trial court never acquired jurisdiction to try or enter judgment against [the defendant] for transporting an open container and his conviction for that offense must be vacated.” (Defendant’s Brief at 3-4.) Another possible problem with the citation was that it did not state that the container was other than the original unopened container, but the defendant did not raise that issue.

Ruling. In an opinion by Judge Bryant, the court of appeals unanimously rejected the defendant’s argument. While acknowledging that an indictment must allege every element of a charged offense, the court stated that it was aware of no authority “equating the requirements for a valid citation with those of a valid indictment.” Instead, it ruled, a citation must simply identify the crime charged and put the defendant on notice of the offense. The court determined without a lengthy discussion that the citation at issue was sufficient to serve that purpose.

I should add that the court referenced several times a defendant’s statutory right to object to trial on a citation under G.S. 15A-922(c). It noted that the defendant did not exercise that right in district court. Although other readings may be possible, I don’t take the court to be saying that the defendant waived his right to challenge the content of the citation by failing to object to the use of a citation as a pleading. Rather, I understand the opinion to hold that the content of the citation was adequate because the pleading standards for citations are relaxed compared to those for other types of charging documents.

Comment. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the defendant seek review of this decision in the state supreme court. Admittedly, the equities may favor the State: there is no indication that the defendant was prejudiced by the phrasing of the citation, and the defendant’s level of intoxication may make him an unsympathetic litigant. However, there are several doctrinal considerations that may pique the interest of the supreme court:

  • G.S. 15A-921 states that a citation is a “pleading[] of the State,” and G.S. 15A-924(a)(5) requires that every pleading “assert[] facts supporting every element of a criminal offense.” The opinion doesn’t cite or discuss G.S. 15A-924(a)(5).
  • In State v. Wells, 59 N.C. App. 682 (1982), the court ruled that a citation for resisting an officer was fatally defective for failing to allege the specific duty the officer was performing at the time of the resistance. In that opinion, the court applied the pleading standard for a “warrant or bill [of indictment],” suggesting that citations are held to the same standard as other accusatory pleadings. Wells is not addressed in the opinion.
  • Creating different pleading standards for some kinds of accusatory pleadings than for others may invite fragmentation of the law. While it may be unrealistic to hold officers in the field to the same drafting standards as prosecutors preparing indictments, a prosecutor handling an inartfully drafted citation may always move to amend it or may supersede it with a statement of charges. (On the other hand, a colleague pointed me to the official commentary to Article 49 of Chapter 15A, which states: “It should be noted that the citation . . . requires only that the crime be “identified,” less than is required in the other processes. This is a reasonable difference, since it will be prepared by an officer on the scene. It still may be used as the pleading, but rather than get into the sufficiency of the pleading in such a case the Commission simply gives the defendant the right to object and require a more formal pleading.”)


If there are further important developments in this case, we will keep you posted. For now, Allen is a useful case for prosecutors dealing with citations with imprecise charging language.

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