Within the Four Corners: Scouring Indictments for Missing Elements in State v. Jackson and State v. Coffey.

Two recent opinions from the Court of Appeals illustrate the remarkable controversy currently underway over the specificity required of indictments.  In State v. Coffey, No. COA22-883, 2024 WL 675881 (N.C. Ct. App. Feb. 20, 2024), our Court of Appeals ruled an indictment for felony obstruction of justice was facially defective for failure to allege an essential element of the offense: the purpose of hindering or impeding a judicial or official proceeding or investigation.  By contrast, in State v. Jackson, No. COA22-280, 2024 WL 925480 (N.C. Ct. App. Mar. 5, 2024), our Court of Appeals ruled an indictment for habitual misdemeanor assault was sufficient though it failed explicitly to allege an element: causing physical injury.  This post attempts to reconcile the divergent analytical approaches taken in Coffey and Jackson.

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The Surest Point of All the Law: Evolving Standards in State v. Lancaster

Reminiscent of the Wars of the Roses, our Supreme Court’s recent opinion in State v. Lancaster, __ N.C. __, 895 S.E.2d 337 (2023), concerns an offense first codified in 1328 during the reign of Edward III.  The common law crime of going armed to the terror of the public, our Supreme Court there held, does not require allegation or proof that the conduct occurred on a public highway; hence, there was no facial defect in an indictment omitting this putative element.  Other elements not explicitly stated in the same indictment – for the purpose of terrifying, in a manner that would naturally terrify – were “clearly inferable.”  This post examines Lancaster to ascertain the direction of our Supreme Court’s avowed retreat from archaic pleading requirements.

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So Your Indictment May Be Flawed: What Now?

A non-lawyer might be forgiven for being somewhat confused by the rules governing indictments.  The basics are summarized easily enough: a trial court’s jurisdiction depends on a facially valid indictment; an indictment is facially valid so long as it sufficiently alleges all the essential elements of the offense; and the essential elements consist of what the State must prove in order to obtain a conviction.  But these basics are so pocked with exceptions, so piled with caveats, that few cases are resolved by reference to them alone.  Our appellate courts have decided a few cases in the last several months which illustrate this complexity.  This post attempts to provide a brief recurrence to fundamental principles applicable to indictments and to throw a lifeline to prosecutors who discover a potential defect during a trial.  My colleagues have blogged pretty frequently about indictment issues, most recently Shea Denning addressing a recent opinion here.

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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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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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Is the NC Court of Appeals Lightening Up on Indictment Issues?

Indictment issues are the bane of the prosecutor’s existence. The rules about how an offense must be alleged in the indictment are highly technical. And because the rules are neither intuitive nor entirely consistent across offenses, they are hard to keep straight. Not surprisingly indictment issues account for a lot of black ink in the appellate reporters. Just how much? In my Criminal Case Compendium, which catalogues all types of criminal cases decided since 2008, there are a full 26 pages of case annotations on indictment issue cases!

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What’s In a (Trade) Name?

Today, the court of appeals reversed a defendant’s drug convictions because the indictments identified the controlled substances in question using terms that are widely used to describe the drugs, but that are neither the chemical names listed in the controlled substance schedules nor – according to the court – “trade names” for the drugs. Because more and more drug cases involve pharmaceuticals that have many names, it is worth reviewing the case.

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Offense Date for Habitual Felon Indictments

A recent conversation reminded me about a question I’ve received several times over the years: On a habitual felon indictment, what should be listed as the offense date? The two main choices are (1) the date of the substantive felony with which the defendant is charged, and (2) the date of the last of the defendant’s previous convictions, i.e., the date that the defendant became a habitual felon.

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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