How Many Charges Can One Charging Document Contain?

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How many charges can be placed on a single charging document, such as a citation, an arrest warrant, or an indictment? Old hands use the rule of thumb, no more than two charges per citation, no more than three charges in any other pleading. But where does that rule come from? And is it even correct?

No constitutional limit. There is no constitutional limit to the number of charges than can be brought in a single charging document. So long as each charge is supported by probable cause and is properly alleged, whether the charges are brought in a single document or broken up into multiple documents does not matter. Indeed, massive multi-count charging documents are common in some jurisdictions. See, e.g., United States v. Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp., 659 F. Supp. 1487 (E.D.N.Y. 1987) (noting that “the Government filed a 470 count indictment against . . . eight defendants”); Vincent v. Com., 281 S.W.3d 785 (Ky. 2009) (noting that defendant was charged with multiple sex crimes in a 294-count indictment); Friedman v. Rehal, 618 F.3d 142 (2d Cir. 2010) (stating that “petitioner was charged [in the courts of New York] with two hundred and forty-three counts of sexual abuse in three separate indictments”); People v. Kimyagarova, 790 N.Y.S.2d 811 (N.Y. Supr. Ct. 2004) (describing a “one hundred count indictment against twenty defendants alleging insurance fraud” and other offenses); State v. G.M.W., Jr., 916 So.2d 460 (La. Ct. App. 2005) (stating that each of two indictments “charged Defendant with one hundred and thirty counts of aggravated incest”); State v. Swift, 1995 WL 803806 (Ohio Ct. App. 1995) (noting that “the Grand Jury returned an indictment which contained five hundred . . . separate counts of rape”).

No statutory limit. The General Statutes also do not limit the number of charges that may be alleged in a single document. The following are the relevant provisions:

  • G.S. 15A-302 states that an infraction may contain “a charge or charges.”
  • G.S. 15A-303 states that a summons “consists of a statement of the crime or infraction” charged, but also that it must command a person to answer “the charges.”
  • G.S. 15A-304, concerning arrest warrants, contains provisions that are similar to G.S. 15A-303.
  • G.S. 15A-641(a) provides that an indictment, or an information, charges a person with “one or more criminal offenses.”
  • G.S. 15A-924 states that a criminal pleading must contain “[a] separate count addressed to each offense charged.”
  • G.S. 15A-926 says that “[t]wo or more offenses may be joined in one pleading or for trial” when they are transactionally related.

 

Statutory basis for two-charge administrative limit on citations. Although no North Carolina statute directly limits the number of charges that may be included in a single charging document, G.S. 7A-148 states that “[t]he chief district judges shall prescribe a multicopy uniform traffic ticket and complaint for exclusive use in each county of the State.” Meanwhile, G.S. 15A-302(g) provides that “[t]he form and content of the citation is as prescribed by the Administrative Officer of the Courts.” As a result, the judges and the AOC have worked together to promulgate the citation form. Out of that collaboration has come an administrative rule that no more than two charges should be included on a single citation. Confusingly, that rule does not appear anywhere on the citation or the instructions on its use. Instead, it is memorialized on the traffic offense waiver list, which states that “[w]hen a defendant is charged with two traffic offenses arising out of the same transaction, only one citation should be used. If an additional one or two offenses arising out of the same transaction are charged, they should be placed on a separate citation.” That language has been on the waiver list at least since 1981, but no one that I spoke to could pin down exactly when it first took effect, or what the basis for the rule was. It has been built into ACIS, the clerks’ computer system, which will accept only two charges per file number when the file is originated by citation. The e-citation system is likewise designed to allow only two charges per citation. Although G.S. 7A-148 refers to a “traffic ticket,” the uniform citation is used for traffic and non-traffic offenses and the de facto two charge per citation limit applies even if the offenses are not traffic related.

Technical, not legal, basis for three-charge limit for warrants, summonses, and magistrates’ orders. Although there is no legal limit to the number of charges that may be contained in a single arrest warrant, criminal summons, or magistrate’s order, the AOC’s computer systems allow only three charges in each charging document of these types. According to the AOC employees who helped me with this post, that system rule is apparently present in ACIS, the old magistrates’ system, and NCAWARE, and seems to have been based on a desire to keep AOC forms to a single page. After a case has begun, it may be possible to add additional charges in the same file number, but at least at origination, the maximum number that can be included without causing smoke and fire to emanate from the AOC’s computer system is three. (I should note here that I greatly appreciate the help from AOC staff and take responsibility for any errors that remain in this post despite their efforts to set me straight.)

No limit on indictments, unless created in CCIS-DA. ACIS does not contain a three-count limit for indictments, and indeed, indictments with more than three counts are not uncommon in North Carolina. Appellate cases referring to indictments with many counts include State v. King, 178 N.C. App. 122 (2006) (“The jury found defendant to be guilty on all thirty-nine counts named in the indictment.”); State v. Kornegay, 313 N.C. 1 (1985) (“The grand jury of Wayne County returned a bill of indictment charging defendant . . . with twenty-nine separate counts in the nature of embezzlement or false pretense.”); and State v. Battle, 201 N.C. App. 159 (2009) (24-count indictment for embezzlement). I assume that a criminal information could also contain any number of counts.

Note, however, that if a prosecutor or a prosecutor’s office prepares an indictment in CCIS-DA, that system will limit the number of counts in the indictment to three, consistent with how NCAWARE works and with the AOC’s background administrative preference for one-page charging documents. Indictments need not be created in CCIS-DA, though. Many offices prepare their indictments in Microsoft Word, and such indictments may contain any number of counts.

As always, I welcome comments, corrections, and other perspectives.

3 comments on “How Many Charges Can One Charging Document Contain?

  1. 15A-303 designates “the crime or infraction” (singular) for a summons and 15A-304 designates “the crime” (singular) for arrest warrants. They both reference “charges” (plural). If you presume that the singular designation was an error, that is if you assume the legislature did not mean what it wrote, then those 2 statutes do not limit summons (“summonses”?) to one crime or infraction and arrest warrants to one crime. You can awkwardly harmonize the statutes by re-thinking “charges” not as accusations of “crimes” but as accusations of “elements of crimes.” However, that doesn’t make much sense in light of the language of “charge or charges” since every crime will have more than one element, won’t it? Anyway, I don’t think it is clear one way or the other.

  2. Again an example of “machine over man” … As this goes back to the 1980s maybe it also had to do with (perceived) limitations of the underlying software and databases (e.g. the prevailing hierarchical vs. the relational database concept). However, “… There is no constitutional limit …” I would have thought there to be no constitutional limit. If a person can commit a crime using several methods combined, the sole integrating “denominator” of all that should be the PURPOSE, i.e. the purported effect and if, e.g. a defendant wanted to commit murder by simultaneously poisoning, shooting, strangling a victim while at the same time setting fire to a building and detonating a grenade or IED, then he/she committed a whole bunch of crimes and other offenses including maybe parking the vehicle with a bomb in a no-parking zone, but all these “deeds” are held together by one overarching purpose. Imagine Shakespeare having been so limited by some arcane rule of play-writing …

  3. The three charge “technology-based” rule applies only when charges are issued through magistrate, as this limit is based on their software. When indicting cases, the ACIS system used by the Clerk of Court can take up to 39 separate counts (or charges) under one case number. In 2005 I indicted a company’s officers for allegedly defrauding employees; for efficiency, I indicted each Defendant in multiples of up to 39 charges. It allowed the Clerk to use only 6 files for each Defendant instead of 78 (at three counts per file).

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