District court has original jurisdiction to try misdemeanors, so a misdemeanor usually arrives in superior court after a defendant is convicted of a misdemeanor in district court and appeals for a trial de novo in superior court. However, there are exceptions to the district court’s original jurisdiction that allow a superior court to handle a misdemeanor without any action in district court. For example, when (1) it is a lesser-included offense of a felony, (2) it is transactionally-related to a felony under G.S. 15A-926 (trying misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia with trafficking in marijuana), (3) there is a guilty or no contest plea in lieu of a felony, or (4) a misdemeanor is initiated by grand jury presentment and subsequent indictment, which is the topic of this post. See G.S. 7A-271, -272.
Because a presentment is rarely used, most people in the criminal justice system understandably know little about it. The presentment has a long history in North Carolina, having been used since statehood. It was originally a method by which a grand jury could bring a criminal charge on its own without an indictment and without the involvement of a prosecutor. But, as early as 1797, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation to prohibit a trial by presentment alone. Instead, the grand jury’s return of a presentment requires a prosecutor to investigate the presentment’s allegations and submit an indictment if appropriate. G.S. 15A-641(c). For additional history on presentments, see State v. Thomas, 236 N.C. 454 (1952).
Although a grand jury could investigate an offense on its own and decide whether to issue a presentment, today a presentment will almost always be returned after a prosecutor has submitted a draft presentment to the grand jury with a testifying witness or witnesses. That occurred in State v. Gunter, 111 N.C. App. 621 (1993), a DWI case. G.S. 15A-628(a)(4) recognizes a prosecutor’s role (or a judge’s) in such a procedure.
A presentment alleging a misdemeanor allows a prosecutor to submit an indictment for that misdemeanor, State v. Birdsong, 325 N.C. 418 (1989), or related misdemeanors, State v. Cole, 294 N.C. 304 (1978). If the grand jury issues an indictment, the State tries the misdemeanor in superior court without any trial or other proceeding having occurred in district court—although a presentment may also be returned for a misdemeanor that is currently pending in district court but has not been tried yet. In such a case, the superior court supplants the district court’s jurisdiction over the misdemeanor. State v. Gunter, 111 N.C. App. 621 (1993).
Why would the State expend the time and effort with a presentment and subsequent indictment for a misdemeanor so it can be initially tried in superior court? The State might use the presentment process when it expects a district court trial to be lengthy, involve several witnesses, etc., and if the defendant is convicted, an appeal for a trial de novo in superior court is highly likely. So one trial instead of two may ultimately save time and effort. Other reasons include cases that involve public figures or officials or cases that have received significant publicity.