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State v. Brice

Supreme Court of North Carolina

November 3, 2017

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
SANDRA MESHELL BRICE

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 30 August 2017.

          On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 786 S.E.2d 812 (2016), vacating and remanding a judgment entered on 12 February 2015 by Judge Michael D. Duncan in Superior Court, Catawba County.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Kristin J. Uicker, Assistant Attorney General, for the State-appellant.

          Glenn Gerding, Appellate Defender, by Daniel L. Spiegel, Assistant Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellee.

          ERVIN, JUSTICE.

         After defendant Sandra Meshell Brice was convicted of committing the felony of habitual misdemeanor larceny, a unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals vacated defendant's conviction and remanded this case to the trial court for the entry of a new judgment and resentencing based upon a misdemeanor larceny conviction on the grounds that the indictment returned against defendant in this case was fatally defective. We reverse the Court of Appeals' decision.

         On 22 July 2013, the Catawba County grand jury returned a single-count bill of indictment purporting to charge defendant with habitual misdemeanor larceny. The charge against defendant came on for trial before the trial court and a jury during the 9 February 2015 criminal session of the Superior Court, Catawba County. After the jury was empaneled and prior to the making of the parties' opening statements, defendant admitted, outside the presence of the jury and after an appropriate colloquy with the trial court, to having been convicted of the four prior larcenies delineated in the indictment. On 12 February 2015, the jury returned a verdict convicting defendant of habitual misdemeanor larceny. Based upon the jury's verdict, the trial court entered a judgment sentencing defendant to an active term of ten to twenty-one months imprisonment, suspended defendant's active sentence, and placed defendant on supervised probation for a period of twenty-four months on the condition that defendant comply with the usual terms and conditions of probation, serve a seventy-five-day term of imprisonment, and pay a $300.00 fine, attorney's fees, and the costs. Defendant noted an appeal to the Court of Appeals from the trial court's judgment.

         In her sole challenge to the trial court's judgment before the Court of Appeals, defendant argued that the indictment's failure to comply with the requirements spelled out in N.C. G.S. § 15A-928 deprived the trial court of "jurisdiction to enter judgment and sentence against [defendant] for felony habitual misdemeanor larceny, " so that her "conviction for habitual misdemeanor larceny must be vacated and remanded for entry of judgment on misdemeanor larceny."

         The State, on the other hand, noted defendant's failure to challenge the validity of the indictment that had been returned for the purpose of charging her with habitual misdemeanor larceny before the trial court and pointed out that defendant had not contended that "the indictment fails to describe each element of the crime with sufficient specificity" or that she had been "prejudiced in preparing her defense as a result of the indictment." Thus, in the State's view, any "variation" between "the strict requirements of N.C. [G.S.] § 15A-928" and the indictment returned against defendant in this case "is not reversible" error. As a result, the State urged the Court of Appeals to leave the trial court's judgment undisturbed.

         In vacating the trial court's judgment and remanding this case to the Superior Court, Catawba County, for resentencing based upon a conviction for misdemeanor, rather than habitual misdemeanor, larceny, the Court of Appeals concluded that "an indictment for habitual misdemeanor larceny is subject to the provisions of N.C. [G.S.] § 15A-928" and that, "[o]n its face, the indictment here failed to comply with" that statutory provision. State v. Brice, ___ N.C. App.___, ___, 786 S.E.2d 812, 815 (2016). The Court of Appeals rejected the State's argument in reliance upon the decision in State v. Jernigan, 118 N.C.App. 240, 455 S.E.2d 163 (1995), in which the Court of Appeals had held that noncompliance with the arraignment procedures set out in N.C. G.S. § 15A-928(c) constituted harmless error given that the defendant, who had stipulated to his prior convictions prior to trial, "was fully aware of the charges against him . . ., understood his rights and the effect of the stipulation, and . . . was in no way prejudiced by the failure of the court to formally arraign him and advise him of his rights." Brice, ___, N.C. App. at ___, 786 S.E.2d at 815 (quoting Jernigan, 118 N.C.App. at 245, 455 S.E.2d at 167). In reaching this result, the Court of Appeals stated that, while "a formal arraignment under [ N.C. G.S. §] 15A-928(c) is not a matter of jurisdictional consequence, " the indictment requirements set out in N.C. G.S. § 15A-928(b) had been held to be jurisdictional in State v. Williams, 153 N.C.App. 192, 568 S.E.2d 890 (2002), disc. rev. improvidently allowed, 357 N.C. 45, 577 S.E.2d 618 (2003) (per curiam). Id. at ___, 786 S.E.2d at 815. As a result, since the failure of the indictment returned against defendant in this case to comply with the requirements of N.C. G.S. § 15A-928 deprived the trial court of jurisdiction to enter judgment against defendant based upon a conviction for habitual misdemeanor larceny, the Court of Appeals vacated defendant's conviction for that offense and remanded this case to the trial court for the entry of judgment and resentencing based upon a conviction for misdemeanor, rather than habitual misdemeanor, larceny. Id. at ___, 786 S.E.2d at 815.

         The State sought discretionary review of the Court of Appeals' decision by this Court on the grounds that "bills of indictment [should not be quashed] for mere informality or minor defects which do not affect the merits of the case, " quoting State v. Brady, 237 N.C. 675, 679, 75 S.E.2d 791, 793 (1953), and that this Court "do[es] not favor the practice of quashing an indictment or arresting a judgment for informalities which could not possibly have been prejudicial to the rights of defendant in the trial court, " quoting State v. Russell, 282 N.C. 240, 248, 192 S.E.2d 294, 299 (1972). According to the State, the Court of Appeals implicitly held in State v. Stephens, 188 N.C.App. 286, 293, 655 S.E.2d 435, 439-40, disc. rev. denied, 362 N.C. 370, 662 S.E.2d 389 (2008), that "an indictment that alleges all the felony offense's essential elements, including the prior conviction, properly alleges the felony offense" "despite not complying with [the] form requirements" set out in N.C. G.S. § 15A-928(b). In the State's view, the Court of Appeals erred by relying upon Williams, which had been "wrongly decided." Finally, the State asserted that, assuming that noncompliance with N.C. G.S. § 15A-928 constituted a jurisdictional defect, the Court of Appeals had erred by failing to simply arrest judgment given that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to convict defendant of, and sentence defendant for, a misdemeanor in this case.

         Defendant, on the other hand, argued that compliance with N.C. G.S. § 15A-928 "is no mere formality, but rather is the formal mechanism by which the purpose of [ N.C. G.S.] § 15A-928 is achieved." "If a defendant is not apprised of the opportunity to admit the prior convictions outside of the presence of the jury, " "the defendant will be unable to avoid the certain prejudice that would result from evidence of prior convictions being presented to the jury." In defendant's view, the State is requesting the Court to disturb settled North Carolina law, in accordance with which "the statute must be strictly followed in order to apprise [the] defendant of the offense for which he is charged and to enable him to prepare an effective defense, " quoting State v. Jackson, 306 N.C. 642, 652 n.2, 295 S.E.2d 383, 389 n.2 (1982). Finally, defendant asserted that the remedy that the Court of Appeals afforded to defendant in this case has been "applied . . . time and time again" and "should remain undisturbed." This Court granted the State's discretionary review petition on 8 December 2016.

         In seeking to persuade us to overturn the Court of Appeals' decision, the State points out that this Court has held that "[a]n indictment is sufficient if it charges all essential elements of the offense with sufficient particularity to apprise the defendant of the specific accusations against him and (1) will enable him to prepare his defense and (2) will protect him against another prosecution for that same offense, " quoting State v. Bowden, 272 N.C. 481, 483, 158 S.E.2d 493, 495 (1968), and, citing State v. House, 295 N.C. 189, 200, 244 S.E.2d 654, 660 (1978), that noncompliance with provisions couched in mandatory terms is not necessarily fatal to the validity of an indictment. The State contends that a decision to invariably quash an indictment under circumstances such as those present here would attribute "to the Legislature an intent to paramount [sic] mere form over substance, " quoting House, 295 N.C. at 203, 244 S.E.2d at 662. As a result, the State argues that, given that "we are no longer bound by the 'ancient strict pleading requirements of the common law' " and that "contemporary criminal pleadings requirements have been 'designed to remove from our law unnecessary technicalities which tend to obstruct justice, ' " quoting State v. Williams, 368 N.C. 620, 623, 781 S.E.2d 268, 271 (2016) (quoting State v. Freeman, 314 N.C. 432, 436, 333 S.E.2d 743, 746 (1985)), "[t]his Court should hold that a pleading that does not conform to [ N.C. G.S. §] 15A-928's form requirements is not jurisdictionally defective for that reason alone."

         Defendant, on the other hand, contends that the failure of the indictment returned against him in this case to separate the allegations setting out the substantive offense from the allegations delineating defendant's prior convictions renders that indictment fatally defective and insufficient to confer jurisdiction upon the trial court to enter judgment against defendant based upon an habitual misdemeanor larceny conviction. The fact that N.C. G.S. § 15A-928 utilizes mandatory terms such as "must" and "may not" in describing the manner in which allegations concerning a defendant's prior convictions should be set out indicates that these requirements should be treated as jurisdictional in nature, particularly given that the relevant statutory provisions do not explicitly state that noncompliance with the provisions of N.C. G.S. § 15A-928 is not a jurisdictional defect and that the General Assembly has failed to amend the ...


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