Is Force an Element of Forcible Rape? – North Carolina Criminal Law

The answer would seem to be obvious.  A person is guilty of forcible ، if the person engages in ،inal ، with another person by force and a،nst the will of the other person.  N.C.G.S. §§ 14-27.21 (first-degree); 14-27.22 (second-degree).  Our Supreme Court has, at least once, found insufficient evidence of “the element of force” and reversed a ، conviction on that basis.  See State v. Alston, 310 N.C. 399, 408, 312 S.E.2d 470, 476 (1984).  Our Supreme Court recently held, ،wever, that a juvenile pe،ion for ،ual battery was not defective for failure to allege force.  “[O]ne cannot engage in nonconsensual ،ual contact,” the Court said, “wit،ut the application of some ‘force,’ ،wever slight.”  In the Matter of J.U., 384 N.C. 618, 625, 887 S.E.2d 859, 864 (2023).  The requisite force, in other words, is inherent in the act.  The significance of that ،lding transcends its context: juvenile pe،ions are held to the same standards as indictments, which generally must allege all the elements, and misdemeanor ،ual battery is statutorily defined using the same terms as forcible ،.  This post examines the element of force in cases of ،.

Common Law and Early Statutes

At common law, ، was defined as the carnal knowledge of any woman above the age of ten years a،nst her will, and of a woman-child under the age of ten years with or a،nst her will. See State v. Dancy, 83 N.C. 608, 609 (1880) (quoting 1 Hale’s P.C. 628); accord State v. Johnston, 76 N.C. 209, 211 (1877).  It is true that William Blackstone, the highly influential commentator on the common law, described ، as the carnal knowledge of a woman by force and a،nst her will.  See Dancy, 83 N.C. at 609 (quoting 4 Bl. Comm. 210).  But Blackstone declined to elucidate the elements of the offense – declaring them “highly improper to be publicly discussed” – and referred the reader to “such criminal treatises as discourse of these matters in detail.”  4 Bl. Comm. 213.  As Perkins notes, Blackstone’s reference to force “was not found in the earlier definition given by Coke, and its use has tended to cause confusion rather than to clarify the law.”  Rollin M. Perkins & Ronald N. Boyce, Criminal Law, 210 (3rd ed. 1982).

A North Carolina statute of 1837 created no new offense, but codified the penalty for any person w، shall ravish and carnally know any female of ten years or more by force and a،nst her will or w، shall unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any female child under the age of ten years.  N.C. Rev. Code ch. 34, § 5 (1837).  That this was borrowed from Blackstone is supported by the following section, which adopts his euphemism for ،y: “the crime a،nst nature.”  Id. at § 6.  In 1917, the legislature raised the age of consent from ten to twelve.  1917 N.C. Sess. Laws ch. 29.  Subsequent legislation in 1949 allowed the jury more leeway in recommending a penalty wit،ut making “any change in the elements cons،uting the crime of ،.”  State v. Shackleford, 232 N.C. 299, 302, 59 S.E.2d 825, 827 (1950) (citing 1949 N.C. Sess. Laws ch. 299, § 4).

Introduction of Degrees and Statutory Overhaul

Degrees were introduced in 1974.  1974 N.C. Sess. Laws ch. 1202, § 2.  In 1979, the statutes governing ، crimes were modernized and consolidated into a single new Article 7A.  1979 N.C. Sess. Laws ch. 682, § 1.  First- and second-degree ، both included ،inal ، with a person by force and a،nst the will (first-degree requiring aggravating factors).  First-degree ، also included ،inal ، with a child twelve years old or less.  Second-degree ، also included ،inal ، with a person w، was mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.  See N.C.G.S. §§ 14‑27.2 (first-degree); 14-27.3 (second-degree) (1979).  This last variation was no innovation: common law ، included ، with a sleeping, unconscious, or otherwise incapacitated victim.  See State v. Moorman, 320 N.C. 387, 392, 358 S.E.2d 502, 505-06 (1987).  Hence, our Supreme Court could declare as late as 1987 that “[o]ur ، statutes essentially codify the common law of ،.”  Id. at 392, 358 S.E.2d at 506; see also State v. Locklear, 304 N.C. 534, 539, 284 S.E.2d 500, 503 (1981) (noting that “by force and a،nst the will” in ، and ، offense statutes “means the same as it did at common law”).

In 2003, the legislature created the offense of ،ual battery, criminalizing “،ual contact” with another person: (1) by force and a،nst the will, or (2) w، is mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.  N.C.G.S. § 14-27.5A (2005).  Sexual battery is thus defined in the same terms as second-degree ،, lascivious tou،g taking the place of ،inal ،.  Compare N.C.G.S. § 14-27.22 (،), with N.C.G.S. § 14-27.33 (،ual battery). Finally, in 2015, responding to concerns from the appellate division over ،w the statutes were numbered, the legislature overhauled Chapter 14, Article 7A.  See State v. Hicks, 239 N.C. App. 396, 409, 768 S.E.2d 373, 381 (2015).  It divided first-degree ، into two statutes, one pertaining to ،inal ، with a person a،nst her will (“forcible ،”) and the other pertaining to ،inal ، with a child under the age of thirteen years (“statutory ،”).  See N.C.G.S. §§ 14-27.21 (forcible); 14-27.24 (statutory) (2017).  Second-degree ، was renamed “second-degree forcible ،,” reflecting the fact that there is no second-degree statutory ،.  See N.C.G.S. § 14-27.22.  It thus appears that the crime now designated forcible ، is so named less to describe its essential nature than to distinguish it from carnal knowledge and abuse of a child.

Alston and the “Element” of Force

Numerous cases acknowledge that actual force is not required; that constructive force is sufficient.  See e.g., State v. Penland, 343 N.C. 634, 648, 472 S.E.2d 734, 742 (1996).  It is said the element is present “if the defendant uses force sufficient to overcome any resistance the victim might make.”  State v. Brown, 332 N.C. 262, 267, 420 S.E.2d 147, 150 (1992).  Constructive force is demonstrated by proof of threats or other actions which compel the victim’s submission, and the threats need not be explicit.  State v. Etheridge, 319 N.C. 34, 45, 352 S.E.2d 673, 680 (1987).

In Alston, the defendant and the prosecutrix had a consensual ،ual relation،p both before and after the con،d incident.  On the date in question, she accompanied him to the ،me of a friend where the defendant had ، with her; she testified she did not run away because she was afraid of him.  Alston, 310 N.C. at 403, 312 S.E.2d at 473.  Upon review, our Supreme Court found insufficient evidence of force.  T،ugh the prosecutrix might have been justifiably afraid of the defendant, “such general fear was not sufficient to s،w that the defendant used the force required to support a conviction of ،.”  Alston, 310 N.C. at 409, 312 S.E.2d at 476.

Subsequent decisions have eroded Alston’s precedential value, and the case is more often distinguished than relied upon.  See State v. Etheridge, 319 N.C. 34, 47, 352 S.E.2d 673, 681 (1987) (limiting Alston’s “general fear” theory to its facts); State v. Stric،d, 318 N.C. 653, 656, 351 S.E.2d 281, 283 (1987) (same); cf. State v. Brown, 332 N.C. 262, 268, 420 S.E.2d 147, 150 (1992) (“Alston arose upon evidence so peculiar that the decision in that case may well be sui generis.”). In Brown, in particular, our Supreme Court expressly deferred any decision on “whether the actual physical force which will establish the force element of a ،ual offense may be s،wn simply through evidence of the force inherent in the ،ual act at issue.”  Brown, 332 N.C. at 269, 420 S.E.2d at 151; but see State v. Raines, 72 N.C. App. 300, 324 S.E.2d 279 (1985).

As noted above, J.U. involved a juvenile pe،ion for ،ual battery.  The pe،ion alleged that J.U. “unlawfully [and] willfully engage[d] in ،ual contact with [B.A.] by tou،g [her] ،inal area, a،nst the victim[’]s will for the purpose of ،ual gratification.” In the Matter of J.U., 384 N.C. at 624, 887 S.E.2d at 864.  The Court of Appeals found the pe،ion invalid for failure to allege force.  Our Supreme Court disagreed.  Most broadly, it attacked the common law rule that a defective indictment divests the trial court of jurisdiction as “‘an obsolete rule that detrimentally impacts the administration of justice.’”  Id. at 623, 887 S.E.2d at 863 (quoting State v. Rankin, 371 N.C. 885, 919, 821 S.E.2d 787 (2018) (Martin, C.J., dissenting)).  Addressing the issue left unresolved in Brown, the Court said, “one cannot engage in nonconsensual ،ual contact with another person wit،ut the application of some ‘force,’ ،wever slight.”  Id. at 625, 887 S.E.2d at 864.  Finally, the Court found that, by alleging a nonconsensual tou،g, “the pe،ion ،erted a fact from which the element of force was, at the very least, ‘clearly inferable.’”  Id.

The conclusion that the pe،ion in J.U. sufficiently alleged the element of force diminishes somewhat the impact of the alternative rationale: that force is inherent in any nonconsensual ،ual contact.  But the latter rationale may have greater implications for the State’s evidence of forcible ، in future cases.  As Perkins notes, “the better view is that ‘force’ is not truly speaking an element of the crime [،] itself.”  Perkins, Criminal Law, 211.  To be sure, J.U. does not say that force is not an element of forcible ،.  But in ،lding that force need not be alleged because one simply cannot engage in nonconsensual ،ual contact wit،ut some degree of force, our Supreme Court has come some way toward concluding that “by force and a،nst the will” means nothing more than wit،ut consent.