Not-Quite-Defective Indictments

Ordinarily, a pleading that fails to accurately allege every element of the offense is defective and is treated as a jurisdictional nullity. See, e.g., G.S. 15A-924(a)(5) (“as a prerequisite to its validity, an indictment must allege every essential element of the criminal offense it purports to charge”); State v. Harris, 219 N.C. App. 590 (2012) (indictment is invalid and confers no jurisdiction on the trial court if it “fails to state some essential and necessary element of the offense”).

The limited exception to this rule is the somewhat relaxed pleading standard for a citation, which may still be sufficient even if it fails to state every element, as long as it reasonably identifies the crime charged. Shea Denning and Jeff Welty covered that issue in a series of posts available here, here, and here.

Several recent cases from the Court of Appeals have offered a good reminder about another important corollary to the general rule for pleadings:  although an indictment must “allege every element” in order to be valid, the state has quite a bit of flexibility in how that standard can be met.

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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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The Court of Appeals Finds Another Fatal Defect in a Sex Offender Indictment

A couple of months ago, I blogged about State v. Herman, __ N.C. App. __ (2012), a case in which the court of appeals found a fatal defect in an indictment charging the defendant with  being a sex offender unlawfully on a premises in violation of G.S. 14-208.18(a)(2). In a nutshell, the indictment in 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