Court of Appeals Rules that a Citation Was Sufficient Even Though It Failed to Allege Multiple Elements of an Offense

Last year, the court of appeals ruled that a citation that failed to allege an essential element of an offense was sufficient to serve as the State’s pleading. The court concluded that “the standard for issuance of an indictment [which must allege every essential element of an offense to be valid] is not precisely the same as [for] a citation,” and under the more relaxed standard, the citation adequately identified the offense even though it failed to allege an essential element. State v. Allen, __ N.C. App. __, 783 S.E.2d 799 (2016) (an officer cited a motorist for an open container violation, but failed to allege that the container was in the passenger compartment of the defendant’s vehicle; more information about Allen is here).

Last week, a divided panel of the same court ruled that a citation that failed to allege multiple elements of an offense was sufficient. The new opinion raises questions about just how low the bar is for citations, and perhaps for other district court pleadings as well.

The new case is State v. Jones.

Facts. The case began when a Raleigh officer stopped a vehicle for speeding. The driver wasn’t impaired, but did have an open can of cold beer in the car. The officer issued a citation that read in part as follows:

The officer named below has probable cause to believe that on or about Sunday, the 04 day of January, 2015 at 10:16PM in [Wake] [C]ounty . . . [Defendant] did unlawfully and willfully OPERATE A MOTOR VEHICLE ON A STREET OR HIGHWAY AT A SPEED OF 62 MPH IN A 45 MPH ZONE. (G.S. 20-141(J1)

and on or about Sunday, the 04 day of January, 2015 at 10:16PM in [Wake] [C]ounty . . . [Defendant] did unlawfully and willfully WITH AN OPEN CONTAINER OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE AFTER DRINKING. (G.S. 20-138.7(A))[.]

Procedural history. The defendant was convicted on both counts in district court and appealed for trial de novo in superior court. A jury acquitted him of speeding but convicted him of the open container violation. He appealed again to the appellate division, arguing that the charging language for the open container charge was defective. He contended that the language omits (1) any allegation that he drove or operated a motor vehicle on a public street or highway, and (2) any allegation that the open container was in the passenger area of his vehicle.

Majority opinion. Judge Berger, joined by Judge Dillon, concluded that the citation was sufficient. The majority reasoned that a citation must only “[i]dentify the crime charged,” G.S. 15A-302(c); that the official commentary to article 49 of chapter 15A of the General Statutes states that this is “less than is required” for other forms of criminal process, because a citation “will be prepared by an officer on the scene”; and that a defendant who wants a more technical statement of the offense has a right to object to trial on a citation and thereby to require the State to file a statement of charges or to obtain a summons or an arrest warrant, G.S. 15A-922(c).

Applying these principles to the citation at issue, the majority stated:

The citation properly identified the crime of having an open container of alcohol in the car while alcohol remained in [the defendant’s] system . . . by citing [G.S.] 20-138.7(a) and stating Defendant had an open container of alcohol after drinking. Identifying a crime charged does not require a hyper-technical assertion of each element of an offense.

Dissent. Judge Zachary dissented. In her view, (1) a citation is a criminal pleading, G.S. 15A-921; (2) a pleading must “asserts facts supporting every element of a criminal offense,” G.S. 15A-924(a)(5); and (3) the citation at issue failed to allege multiple essential elements and so was fatally defective. As to the majority’s conclusion that the citations are held to a lower standard than other charging documents, Judge Zachary contended that the relaxed standard applies to the use of a citation as a criminal process that requires the defendant to come to court, but not to the use of a citation as a criminal pleading that formally charges the defendant with an offense.

Analysis. Both the majority opinion and the dissent in Jones are thoughtful and detailed. Given the dissent, I would be surprised if the defendant did not exercise his right to have the state supreme court review the matter.

If there is no further appeal, or if Jones is affirmed, two principal questions will arise:

  1. Just how low is the bar for citations? When does charging language fail to “identify” the offense charged? The majority in Jones seemed to rely in part on the fact that the correct statutory citation accompanied the charging language. Will the inclusion of a correct statutory citation cure any and all defects with a citation? Could a statutory citation be sufficient by itself to identify an offense, even without any charging text?
  2. Is there any impact on other district court pleadings? Most of the reasoning in Jones is specific to citations. Only citations are prepared by an officer in the field and a defendant’s right to object to being tried on a citation does not extend to other types of pleadings. But the last several pages of the majority opinion explores what seems to be an alternative holding that even if the citation were defective, “the [citation’s] failure to comply with [G.S.] 15A-924(a)(5) by neglecting to allege facts supporting every element of an offense in a citation is not a jurisdictional defect” that may be raised at any time.  The majority’s argument seems to be that while a proper indictment is required for the superior court to have jurisdiction over a felony, district court matters do not have the same jurisdictional prerequisite. Candidly, I am not sure that I fully grasp this section of the opinion, but the court appears to be drawing a distinction between misdemeanors and felonies, not between citations and other pleadings. Therefore, its reasoning may apply to other district court pleadings, and may impact the remedy available when pleading defects are identified.

I didn’t quickly find numerous cases from other states addressing similar issues, but I did find one. In State v. Leach, 782 P.2d 552 (Wash. 1989) (en banc), the Supreme Court of Washington held that while most criminal charging documents must allege every element of a charged offense, citations need not do so as long as they describe the offense generally and provide a citation to the pertinent statute. As did the majority in Jones, the court emphasized that citations are normally prepared at the scene by law enforcement officers.

4 thoughts on “Court of Appeals Rules that a Citation Was Sufficient Even Though It Failed to Allege Multiple Elements of an Offense”

  1. The idea that officers have to write out the charging language on citation seems ridiculous in the first place. If I charge you under a particular law I only need to write out the name of the charge and NCGS number. The question of did the crime meet the elements is what court is for.

  2. Interesting arguments on both sides. I think the dissent has a strong argument. The reason this citation did not contain the proper charging language is because E-Citation, a program provided by the courts, does not have the proper language for this offense. This is one of the offenses that requires the officer to edit the ecitation charge to include operate a motor vehicle and did possession the open container in the passenger compartment of the vehicle. Ecitation has the proper language on most charges, but there are a few that are missing information.


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