Third Update: The use of initials appears to be a floor below which a criminal pleading may not fall. In In re M.S., the court of appeals held that a juvenile petition that identified a sex offense victim only as “a child” was inadequate.
Second Update: The Court of Appeals has approved the use of initials in State v. McKoy, available here.
Update: I have learned of at least one North Carolina trial court order addressing this issue, and finding, in the circumstance of the particular case at hand, that it was not improper to identify the victim by initials. The order is here: Order re Using Initials in Charging Documents
Original Post: Magistrates and prosecutors sometimes want to use initials, rather than full names, to identify individuals other than the defendant in charging documents. For example, a magistrate preparing an arrest warrant for a sexual assault might want to identify the victim only by her initials, in order to preserve her privacy. Or, when a law enforcement officer has used an informant to purchase drugs from a defendant, the officer might ask the magistrate to identify the informant only by his initials, in order to protect him from retaliation and to preserve his usefulness as an informant. But is the use of initials proper?
The starting point in the analysis is G.S. 15A-924(a)(5), which requires pleadings to contain a factual statement that summarizes the charged offense with “sufficient precision clearly to apprise the defendant . . . of the conduct which is the subject of the accusation.” One might argue that, in most cases, the description of the offense plus the initials will be sufficient to give the defendant notice of the charge. If the defendant needs more information, he can move for a bill of particulars under G.S. 15A-925.
However, at least in the context of charges involving the sale of controlled substances, our appellate courts have held that indictments must allege the name of the purchaser, if it is known. See State v. Bennett, 280 N.C. 167 (1971); State v. Calvino, 179 N.C. App. 219 (2006). These cases don’t spell out what counts as alleging the purchaser’s “name,” i.e., whether it must include a first and last name, whether a street name or a nickname would suffice, or whether initials are sufficiently specific to count as a “name.” But if the purpose is to provide the defendant with detailed information about the facts supporting the charge, providing a complete first and last name that can be used to identify the purchaser is certainly the safest course in preparing charging documents.
I am not aware of a North Carolina case regarding the use of initials to identify the victim of a sexual assault. On the one hand, the statutory short form indictments for rape and sex offense described in G.S. 15-144.1 and 15-144.2 indicate that the indictments should name the victim. On the other hand, those statutes, like the cases referenced above, don’t say what counts as a “name,” and the victim’s privacy interest weighs in favor of allowing initials to be used. There is federal case law that generally supports this approach. See, e.g., United States v. Pliego, 2008 WL 371160 (D. Minn. Feb. 8, 2008) (unpublished) (approving indictment that used initials to protect the identity of a minor victim); United States v. Jones, 2007 WL 2071267 (N.D. Ga. July 19, 2007) (unpublished) (same); United States v. Wabo, 290 F.Supp.2d 486, 490 (D.N.J. 2003) (“In the instant case, the Superseding Indictment contains sufficient factual and legal information for the defense to prepare its case. Although the victims are identified by initials, it is not essential that an indictment identify victims by their given names.”). Furthermore, our appellate courts themselves regularly refer to sexual assault victims by their initials in the courts’ written opinions. See, e.g., State v. Summers, 177 N.C.App. 691 (2006) (“We will use the victim’s initials rather than her full name in order to protect her identity.”). Still, in light of Bennett and the statutory short-form language, using initials is still a risk — a calculated trade-off between protecting the victim’s privacy and taking the chance of having a conviction set aside on appeal.
Please enrich this post by leaving comments about local practices regarding the use of initials, other contexts in which this issue arises, and important cases not discussed above.