When (and If) an Order for Arrest Should Issue after Dismissal to the Grand Jury

It is no secret that probable cause hearings are rare throughout North Carolina, despite clear provisions for conducting them in the general statutes. See G.S. 15A-606, 611-614. The reasons for their rarity have been set forth on this blog as far back as 2009. Prosecutors often point to the volume of felony cases moving through district court and the impracticality of conducting a mini-trial with “all the trappings of a full adversary hearing” in explaining why they routinely bypass the procedure. See State v. Lester, 294 N.C. 220, 224 (1978). However, skipping the PC hearing can create a gap, or bump, in the “regular” course of a criminal case, leading to various issues.

At the probable cause stage in district court, the defendant may waive the hearing, assert the right to a hearing and get one, or assert the right to a hearing and not get one. In this last scenario, the State, rather than engaging in the hearing, may choose to dismiss the case in district court and then recharge the matter in superior court by seeking an indictment. This practice is referred to as “voluntary dismissal to the grand jury” (VDGJ) or “dismissal for possible indictment.” The State’s bypassing of the probable cause hearing has never been deemed reversible error in North Carolina, as the defendant must demonstrate prejudice, which is rarely possible. See State v. Wiggins, 344 N.C. 18 (1993).

After voluntary dismissal to the grand jury, a crucial question arises as to whether an order for arrest (OFA) should issue upon indictment. The question is the subject of this blog post.

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When Can the State Use Testimony from the Probable Cause Hearing at Trial?

My colleague, Phil Dixon, blogged about the Court of Appeals’ decision in State v. Joyner, 284 N.C. App. 681 (2022), here. In Joyner, the court ruled that the State did not run afoul of the Confrontation Clause when it introduced the victim’s testimony from a civil 50C hearing at the defendant’s criminal trial. Last year, the court decided State v. Smith, 287 N.C. App. 614 (2023) (unpublished), a case that provides an interesting counterpoint to Joyner. In Smith, the State recorded the victim’s testimony from the probable cause hearing in district court and moved to admit the testimony at trial in superior court after the victim became unavailable. The trial court admitted the testimony, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It ruled that the opportunity to cross-examine the victim at the probable cause hearing was not “adequate” to comport with constitutional requirements, vacated the convictions for first-degree kidnapping and human trafficking, and ordered a new trial.

Although the opinion is unpublished, the State did not seek further review, and the Smith decision has important implications for practitioners. This post examines those issues and offers advice for defenders when the State attempts to introduce recorded testimony from a probable cause hearing at trial.

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