Suppose a defendant is found responsible in district court for one of the many infractions codified in Chapter 20. Take your pick: speeding, a seat belt violation, jaywalking, improper passing, or one of the many other non-criminal motor vehicle offenses. The defendant wishes to appeal that adjudication. May she appeal the case to superior court?
My answer is no. A few more words are required to explain why.
What, exactly, is an infraction? An infraction is a non-criminal violation of the law punishable by a fine but not punishable by imprisonment. See G.S. 14-3.1(a). Even though infractions are not crimes, they are, in many respects, processed in court like misdemeanors. See G.S. 14-3.1(b), G.S. 15A-1111 – 1118. Indeed, G.S. 15A-1111 provides that if a question of procedure is not addressed in the article of Chapter 15A that specifies procedures for infractions, the procedures for misdemeanors in district court apply (unless they are clearly inapplicable to infractions).
A person may be charged with an infraction by citation or criminal summons. G.S. 15A-1113. Original, exclusive jurisdiction for the adjudication and disposition of infractions lies in district court, subject to two exceptions: (1) The superior court has jurisdiction to dispose of an infraction that is a lesser-included violation of a criminal action properly before the court; and (2) The superior court may accept an admission of responsibility to an infraction that is a related charge to a criminal action properly before the court. G.S. 7A-253; 7A-271(d).
Thus, stand-alone infractions or infractions charged along with related misdemeanors are initially processed in district court.
The old law. A defendant who denied responsibility for an infraction committed before December 1, 2013, but was found responsible in district court for such an infraction could appeal that determination to superior court. G.S. 15A-1115(a). In superior court, the defendant was entitled to a jury trial unless he or she consented to having the hearing conducted by the judge. Id. Neither this statute nor any other authorized a defendant who pled responsible to an infraction in district court to appeal from a subsequent adjudication of responsibility.
What happened in 2013? The General Assembly repealed G.S. 15A-1115(a) in its entirety in S.L. 2013-385 (S 182). The title of bill read, in pertinent part, “An Act to Eliminate Appeals for Infractions . . . .” The repeal was effective for infractions committed on or after December 1, 2013.
Why the long-winded explanation? The legislature’s intent in enacting S.L. 2013-385 is pretty clear. The title of the bill states that its purpose is to eliminate appeals for infractions, and the act repealed the statutory provision providing for those appeals. Confusion arises, however, because the repeal created a sort of statutory vacuum. (The legal eagles at the Administrative Office of the Courts spotted this issue immediately, summarizing the legislation and questions that might arise in this 2013 memo.)
A person unfamiliar with the history recited above might turn to Chapter 15A and, finding nothing that specifically addresses the appeal procedure for infractions, conclude that the appeal provisions for misdemeanor offenses apply. See G.S. 15A-1111 (“If a question of procedure is not governed by this Article, the procedures applicable to the conduct of pretrial and trial proceedings for misdemeanors in district court are applicable unless the procedure is clearly inapplicable to the hearing of an infraction.”) And the rules for misdemeanor appeals are far more generous than even the old rule for infractions. A defendant convicted of a misdemeanor in district court may appeal to the superior court for trial de novo – regardless of whether the defendant pled guilty or was found guilty following a district court trial. See G.S. 15A-1431(b).
I don’t think that’s the correct conclusion in light of the legislative history. Reading the current law as permitting the appeal of infractions pursuant to the general rules applicable to misdemeanors would not only undermine S.L. 2013-385, but would expand the ability to appeal from infractions beyond what existed in 2013 since the misdemeanor appeal rule allows a defendant to appeal to superior court from a plea in district court – not simply a conviction following trial. See State v. Mead, 235 N.C. App. 221 (2014) (unpublished) (noting that S.L. 2013-385 “deleted [G.S.] § 15A–1115(a), limiting appeals of infractions to the superior court and this Court to infractions described in [G.S.] § 7A–271(d)”). An expanded right to appeal would be an odd outcome for an act “To Eliminate Appeals for Infractions.”
What if the original charge was a misdemeanor and the defendant pled to an infraction?
When a defendant appeals a misdemeanor conviction to superior court and that conviction was based on a plea agreement, the superior court acquires jurisdiction over any misdemeanor dismissed, reduced or modified pursuant to that plea arrangement as though the agreement had never been entered. G.S. 15A-1431(b). Consider, for example, a defendant who is charged with driving while impaired, driving while license revoked, and reckless driving who pleads guilty in district court to driving while impaired pursuant to a plea agreement that dismisses the other charges. If the defendant appeals the driving while impaired conviction to superior court, the superior court acquires jurisdiction over all three misdemeanor charges, including the two that were dismissed pursuant to the plea agreement.
Some have questioned whether this rule permits a defendant to appeal an adjudication of responsibility for an infraction to superior court when that adjudication results from the State’s reduction of a misdemeanor to an infraction pursuant to a plea agreement. That’s a hard sentence to follow so I’ll provide an example. Suppose the defendant is originally charged with speeding more than 15 miles per hour over the speed limit, a misdemeanor offense. See G.S. 20-141(j1). The prosecutor reduces the charges to exceeding the posted speed in violation of G.S. 20-141(b), an infraction, in exchange for the defendant’s agreement to plead responsible. May the defendant appeal from the subsequent adjudication of responsibility?
I don’t think so. The provisions of G.S. 15A-1431(b) apply to a defendant “convicted in the district court.” A finding of responsible for an infraction is not a conviction. Also, for the reasons stated above, I don’t think that the general rules for misdemeanor appeals apply to infractions. Construing G.S. 15A-1431(b) to allow the appeal of an infraction in this instance would expand a defendant’s rights beyond those that existed before the repeal of G.S. 15A-1115, which (I’ll say it again) is at odds with S.L. 2013-385.