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.
Two recent cases from the North Carolina appellate courts indicate that reports of the demise of technical pleading requirements may have been greatly exaggerated. I am responsible for at least one of those reports. Several years ago, I posted about State v. Brawley, 370 N.C. 626 (2018) (per curiam), in which the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed a conviction based on an indictment charging the defendant with stealing shirts belonging to “Belk’s Department Stores, an entity capable of owning property,” even though “Belk’s Department Stores” was not the full legal name of the entity that suffered the loss. I noted then that Brawley was one in a series of recent state supreme court opinions rejecting claims that technical pleading defects deprived the trial court of jurisdiction over the offense. See also State v. Jones, 255 N.C. App. 364 (2017) (failure to allege every element in a citation was not a jurisdictional defect).
Yet, in recent months, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has issued two published opinions vacating convictions based on fatally defective indictments. The first was a rape conviction pursuant to an indictment that failed to allege the defendant knew the victim was physically helpless. State v. Singleton, 285 N.C. App. 630 (2022). The second was a conviction for possessing a firearm at a protest where the pleading failed to state that the offense occurred on public property. State v. Reavis, __ N.C. App. __, 882 S.E.2d 590 (2022). To be sure, each of these cases involves the failure to plead elements of the offense, which is distinguishable from the victim-naming requirements in Brawley and related cases. Nevertheless, each relies on the notion that defects in an indictment deprive the court of its power to adjudicate a case, even when the pleading is sufficient to pass constitutional muster. This post will discuss these cases and consider potential future developments.