Turner Reversed

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.

Refresher on Turner. Shea wrote about Turner here. In brief, it was a DWI case in which an officer issued a citation that a magistrate subsequently converted into a magistrate’s order. At that time, G.S. 15-1 provided that a misdemeanor must be “presented or found by the grand jury within two years.” After the case had been pending for more than two years, the defendant moved to dismiss, contending that because he had not been charged in an indictment or presentment within two years, the misdemeanor statute of limitations in G.S. 15-1 had run. Further, while the Supreme Court of North Carolina had ruled in State v. Underwood, 244 N.C. 68 (1956), that an arrest warrant was also sufficient to toll the statute, the defendant pointed out that there hadn’t been one of those, either: there was a just a citation that became a magistrate’s order, two pleadings not listed in G.S. 15-1.

A district court judge, a superior court judge, and the court of appeals agreed with the defendant that the statute had run, with the appellate court stating expressly that the “issuance of a citation did not toll the statute of limitations.” The state supreme court stayed the ruling, and the legal community has been waiting for its review.

Curtis. Like Turner, Curtis was a DWI case. The defendant was arrested and was charged in a magistrate’s order. Two and a half years later, the defendant effectively moved to dismiss based on the statute of limitations. A district court judge and a superior court judge agreed with the defendant’s argument, and the court of appeals affirmed based on Turner.

Last week, the state supreme court reversed, noting that since G.S. 15-1 was adopted, a number of relevant procedures have changed: the state constitution has been amended to create the district courts; the district courts have been given jurisdiction over misdemeanors; and the legislature has allowed citations, summonses, arrest warrants, and magistrates’ orders to be used as the state’s pleadings in misdemeanor cases. In light of these changes, the court viewed the defendant’s argument that pleadings other than indictments and presentments fail to toll the statute of limitations as “overly technical.” The court indicated that “the purpose of the statute of limitations” — to prevent long delays in charging — is satisfied by the issuance of any valid criminal process.

What about Turner? Turner itself was reversed last week as well, in a one-paragraph opinion that relied on “the reasons stated in State v. Curtis.” I don’t know why the court chose Curtis rather than Turner as the vehicle for its reasoning. If anyone has any thoughts about that, please post a comment.

Amendment of G.S. 15-1. It is important to remember that during the 2017 legislative session, the General Assembly amended G.S. 15-1 to provide in part that “misdemeanors shall be charged within two years,” removing any reference to the grand jury, presentments, and so on, and allowing the issuance of any valid process to satisfy the statute. Shea blogged about that amendment here. It is effective for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2017, so for new cases, Curtis is only of academic interest.

Effect on Pipeline Cases and Turner Work-Arounds. Of course, there are plenty of misdemeanor charges based on offenses allegedly committed before December 1, 2017, still pending in the courts of North Carolina. For those cases, Curtis removes the “Turner issue” and should eliminate the state’s incentive to pursue some of the Turner work-arounds that have been tried, such as seeking presentments and then indictments in misdemeanor cases that are approaching the two-year mark or dismissing those cases and seeking to re-charge them via arrest warrant. Shea’s post about the work-arounds is here. There is disagreement about the the propriety of the work-arounds and some defendants have successfully challenged the use of presentments as being inconsistent with the historical function of those documents, but I will leave the details of that debate for another post. The litigation may continue with respect to cases in which a work-around has already been employed, but seems sure to diminish in frequency as the need for the work-arounds fades.

8 thoughts on “Turner Reversed”

  1. That sure took a long time. I wrote an opinion in just a few minutes:

    The courts before us unanimously applied the facts to the law, they did not take into account the result. We couldn’t allow the result, no matter the law. Reversed and remanded.


  2. Agreed that it’s strange they picked Curtis as the vehicle (Curtis and Turner were decided same day by same panel). Perhaps (a) because Curtis involved an even longer time gap than Turner (although only marginally longer); (b) because the Court truly disapproved of the COA’s reasoning in Turner, reversing the unpublished decision in Curtis was a dismissive shot at the published Turner decision; or (c) probably more likely, it’s simply chronological — the appeal in Curtis was (I believe) docketed in the COA before the appeal in Turner (so arguably, the COA should have set out its reasoning in Curtis and affirmed Turner for the reasoning in Curtis…although by that reasoning, the appeal in Turner appears to have been filed in the SCt immediately before Curtis, with the docket numbers being only one apart).

  3. We now know that our Supreme Court is weak: These cases show that they are more worried with outcome in a case then with the law. I noticed all of our supreme justices often state they are tough on crime; wait WTH they are not suppossed to be tough on crime they are supposed to follow the law. Any judge who supported this ruling should not be a judge, plain and simple. I still have not forgot the State v Nabors case; where this court stated the State must have an expert to prove drug ID; however the defendant can state whatever he wants to prove drug ID.

  4. It’s very simple really. It’s called”outcome based decisions”. One you decide where you want to go it really easy to figure out how to get there. You can even make it look like you ended up some place you didn’t want to go.

  5. I represented Mr. Turner at the trial level and Ms. Curtis at the appellate level. Here’s what I think:

    Unfortunately, I fully expected this result from the Supreme Court, if not its reasoning for it. The current Supreme Court has shown itself to be hostile to the claims of criminal defendants. They often, as they did here, grant certiorari to review and ultimately reverse unanimous decisions of the Court of Appeals that have provided some relief to criminal defendants.

    I found their analysis disappointingly shallow. They acknowledged that the plain language of the N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15-1 was clear and unambiguous. In such cases, the usual rule is to give the statute its plain meaning. But following that rule would have led to the Court affirming the Court of Appeals and granting Ms. Curtis the relief she sought. In order to avoid this outcome, the Court determined that to abide by the plain meaning of the statute would have “[led] to absurd results.” The Court also determined that the defendant’s argument, which was based on clear and unambiguous language of the statute, was “overly technical.” The “absurd result” that the Court seeks to avoid, ultimately, is that the State would have to try defendants for misdemeanors within two years of the date of offense or, failing that, take the charge to Superior Court by presentment. One might question whether such a requirement is indeed “absurd.”

    To support its novel analysis, the Court cited a civil case, not a criminal case. That suggests that the Court was unable to locate a single published criminal case in the history of North Carolina that disregarded the express “clear and unambiguous” language used by the North Carolina General Assembly. This is in essence the Court amending the statute and invading the role of the legislature. It also suggests that the Court had a pre-determined result in mind and struggled to find any authority whatsoever for its position.

    Taking this analysis to its logical conclusion will allow judges across the state to interpret any statute any way they please. All a court now need do is, by citation to Curtis, determine that a party’s argument is “overly technical” and would “lead to absurd results.” The State and defendants alike will be unable to predict what a court will do. As a result of this decision, courts now have carte blanche to overrule the will of the General Assembly, the popularly elected branch of state government.


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