North Carolina Sticks with the Rule that Omitting an Element in an Indictment Deprives the Court of Jurisdiction – at Least for Now

Shortly before Christmas, the state supreme court decided a littering case captioned State v. Rankin, __ N.C. __, __ S.E.2d __, 2018 WL 6714931 (Dec. 21, 2018). The majority ruled that because the indictment “failed to . . . allege all . . . elements of the offense . . . the trial court had no jurisdiction to enter a conviction . . . against defendant.” The rule that the omission of an element is a jurisdictional defect is long-standing law in North Carolina, but many other jurisdictions, including the federal courts, have abandoned it. Chief Justice Martin, in dissent, argued that North Carolina should follow suit. This post summarizes the North Carolina rule, explains the controversy in Rankin, discusses why other jurisdictions have left the rule behind, and considers whether the General Assembly might address the issue.

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“Belk’s Department Stores, an entity capable of owning property”

The court of appeals recently decided that an indictment alleging that a defendant stole some shirts from “Belk’s Department Stores, an entity capable of owning property,” did not sufficiently identify the victim as an entity capable of owning property. State v. Brawley, __ N.C. App. __, __ S.E.2d __, 2017 WL 4632820 (Oct. 17, 2017). This post summarizes the decision, considers the possibility of further review, and explains how other states handle this issue.

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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.

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Charging R/D/O: Alleging the Duty the Officer Was Discharging

I was teaching a class about charging documents recently when the conversation turned to the rule that a charge of resisting, delaying, or obstructing a public officer in violation of G.S. 14-223 must describe the particular duty that the officer was discharging at the time of the resistance. A member of the class asked whether it would suffice to describe the duty as “protecting and serving.” I gave my best guess about the answer but I thought I would see how others react to the question. So take the poll below, then read the rest of the post for a little history about the rule, a summary of a recent case, and a discussion of authority about the sufficiency of a general description like “protecting and serving.”

When charging R/D/O is "protecting and serving" a sufficient description of the duty the officer was discharging?

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Charging Greater and Lesser-Included Offenses Separately

Is it proper to charge a defendant separately with a greater offense and with a lesser-included offense? For example, is it proper to charge a defendant with robbery and with larceny arising out of the same taking, even though larceny is a lesser-included offense of robbery?

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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.

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Pleading Defects and Double Jeopardy

I recently taught a class of law students about criminal pleadings. We discussed proper pleadings and defective pleadings, and the State’s ability to bring new charges against a defendant after a case is dismissed due to a fatal defect in the pleading. It was an interesting conversation, and it prompted me to look into the matter a bit more. This post summarizes the law.

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Pleading in the Conjunctive

Many veteran prosecutors know the rule, “plead in the conjunctive.” In other words, in an indictment or other charging document, join different theories of the crime with the word “and” instead of the word “or,” even when the statute defining the offense uses “or.” It’s an archaic rule, but it comes up often enough that … Read more


Fatal Variance — Use It or Lose It

A fatal defect in an indictment occurs when the indictment fails to allege an essential element of the crime charged. A fatal variance, by contrast, occurs when the facts brought out at trial don’t match up with those alleged in the indictment, and this difference occurs as to an essential element. Here are two illustrative … Read more