Last week, I blogged about the lack of a statute of limitations for felony offenses in North Carolina. There is, of course, a two-year statute of limitations for misdemeanors, a matter that has been the subject of a fair amount of recent litigation. A reader posed an excellent question at the end of that post: Is the statute of limitations a defense that may be waived or does a trial court lack jurisdiction over a time-barred offense?
An experienced attorney from another state recently remarked on her surprise at learning that there was no statute of limitations barring the prosecution of felony offenses in North Carolina after the passage of a specified period of time. This attorney’s comment reminded me that while the no-statute-of-limitations-state-of-affairs may be well-known among experienced practitioners of criminal law in NC, it isn’t necessarily known by others.
Last week, the state supreme court unanimously reversed State v. Turner, __ N.C. App. __, 793 S.E.2d 287 (2016), and held that any “any criminal pleading that establishes jurisdiction in the district court should toll the two-year statute of limitations” set forth in G.S. 15-1. It did so in a case named State v. Curtis. This post recaps the Turner controversy and unpacks the ruling in Curtis.
While we wait to see what the North Carolina Supreme Court has to say in State v. Turner about the existing statute of limitations for misdemeanors, the General Assembly has amended G.S. 15-1 for future prosecutions.
The court of appeals held last month in State v. Turner, __ N.C. App. __, 793 S.E.2d 287 (2016), temp. stay allowed, __ N.C. __ (2016), that the issuance of a magistrate’s order charging a defendant with driving while impaired did not toll the two-year statute of limitations applicable to misdemeanors. The court reasoned that the provision setting forth the statute of limitations, G.S. 15-1, was explicit in requiring that an indictment or presentment be issued within two years. The court said that only one extension of this rule had been recognized: Pursuant to State v. Underwood, 244 N.C. 68 (1956), a defendant may be tried upon a misdemeanor charged by a warrant within two years of the offense. Because Turner was not charged by presentment, indictment or warrant and the State failed to “commence the prosecution of its case” within two years of the offense, the court of appeals ruled that the trial court properly dismissed the charges.
Last month’s blog commentary included a lively dispute about whether trial courts are bound to follow Turner given the state supreme court’s issuance of a stay. Regardless of whether Turner is binding precedent (and I don’t think it yet is, given the stay), trial courts may rely on its reasoning. Moreover, the state supreme court may ultimately decline to review the opinion or, if it does grant review, may affirm its holding. Thus, prosecutors across the state are considering whether and how the State may satisfy or toll the statute of limitations for misdemeanors charged by citation or magistrate’s order.
There are at least four categories of such misdemeanors, and the implications for each are discussed below.
The court of appeals held yesterday in State v. Turner, __ N.C. App. ___ (2016), that the issuance of a magistrate’s order charging a defendant with driving while impaired did not toll the two-year statute of limitations for misdemeanors. Because the defendant was not tried within two years of the offense, the appellate court ruled that the trial court properly dismissed the charges. This opinion is as big as surprise to criminal procedure experts as the outcome of last month’s presidential election was to pollsters. Does it mean that district courts must dismiss charges for misdemeanor offenses that occurred more than two years ago?