Earlier this month, the state supreme court rejected a defendant’s challenge to his conviction for possession of a firearm by a felon pursuant to an indictment that failed to comport with a statutory pleading requirement. That case, State v. Newborn, 330PA21, ___ N.C. ___ (June 16, 2023), is the latest in a decade of rulings determining that technical pleading defects do not deprive the trial court of jurisdiction. This post will review Newborn and consider its place among jurisprudence departing from the traditional view that a defective pleading fails to vest jurisdiction.
Author’s Note: The opinion discussed below was reversed by the North Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Newborn, 330PA21, ___ N.C. ___ (June 16, 2023). The North Carolina Supreme Court’s opinion is discussed here.
The first sentence of State v. Newborn, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-426 (Aug. 17, 2021) sums up the issue: “When the charge of possession of a firearm by a felon is brought in an indictment containing other related offenses, the indictment for that charge is rendered fatally defective and invalid, thereby depriving a trial court of jurisdiction over it.”
Even after I read it that straightforward statement, I questioned my understanding. This rule struck me as inconsistent with recent caselaw holding that the violation of statutory pleading rules for prior convictions does not deprive the trial court of jurisdiction. See State v. Brice, 370 N.C. 244 (2017). But (ipso facto) that is the rule for felon in possession indictments, which prosecutors ignore at the case’s peril.
The court of appeals last year vacated Sandra Brice’s conviction for habitual misdemeanor larceny for stealing five packs of steaks valued at $70 from a Food Lion in Hickory. The reason? The indictment alleged the steak theft and Brice’s four prior convictions for misdemeanor larceny in a single count. That violated a statutory rule requiring that prior convictions be alleged in a separate count, and, in the court of appeals’ view, deprived the superior court of jurisdiction to enter judgment against Brice for habitual misdemeanor larceny, a felony offense. Earlier this month, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals and remanded the case for reinstatement of the trial court’s judgment. Read on to find out why.
Author’s Note: The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals decision in State v. Brice, which is discussed in the body of this post. You can read about the state supreme court’s ruling here.
Everyone knows that having a criminal history is bad. John wrote earlier this week about C-CAT, an on-line, searchable database that helps folks identify many of the non-criminal consequences of a conviction—like losing a professional license. The criminal consequences of an earlier conviction are, in contrast, much easier to figure out. A criminal record generally results in greater punishment for new crimes. For a handful of North Carolina crimes, a prior conviction for a similar offense increases the grade of the new offense – sometimes converting what would otherwise be a misdemeanor to a felony. Special rules govern the charging, arraignment, and trial for such offenses. The failure to follow them is the subject of considerable case law from our state’s appellate courts, including two recent opinions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals.