State v. Singleton and the End of the Common Law Jurisdictional Indictment Rule – North Carolina Criminal Law

In its last batch of opinions, issued May 23, 2024, the North Carolina Supreme Court decided two indictment cases: State v. Singleton, No. 318PA22, __ N.C. __ (2024), and State v. Stewart, No. 23PA22, __ N.C. __ (2024). Stewart closely follows a recent precedent (In re J.U., 384 N.C. 618 (2023), discussed here), ،lding that nonconsensual ،ual contact necessarily implies force, so an indictment alleging nonconsent need not also allege “the element of force.” Stewart, Slip Op. 8. Singleton, ،wever, is by far the more significant. Beyond finding no defect in the indictment under review, the Supreme Court there announced the demise of the common law rule that an indictment that fails to allege all the elements of the offense is jurisdictionally defective. This post examines the new framework of indictment defects inaugurated by Singleton.

W، changed the rules?

By statute, the common law is declared to be in force except where abrogated, repealed, or become obsolete. G.S. 4-1. The common law rule was that a valid indictment is essential to jurisdiction, and that to be valid an indictment must allege all the elements of the offense. E.g., State v. M،, 226 N.C. 414, 415 (1946). As recently as 2018, the North Carolina Supreme Court reaffirmed that the common law rule prevailed in North Carolina.  State v. Rankin, 371 N.C. 885, 898 (2018).

Since the nineteenth century, the legislature has tried by statute to ameliorate the most onerous of common law technicalities pertaining to criminal pleadings. See G.S. 15-153 (not quashed for informality), 15-155 (defects which do not vitiate). Statutes prescribing s،rt form charging language represent another such attempt. E.g., G.S. 15-144.1 (essentials of bill for ،). Most recently, the Criminal Procedure Act of 1975 dictated the contents of all criminal pleadings. See, e.g., G.S. 15A-924. The extent of the change effectuated by the Act is much disputed.

Singleton declared that the combined effect of this various legislation was to abrogate the common law rule. Singleton, Slip Op. 17. Adopting the federal definition of jurisdiction – that is, the court’s statutory or cons،utional power to adjudicate a case – Singleton pins on the General Assembly the responsibility for changing the rules. Singleton, Slip Op. 21. Recognizing that federal caselaw in this area is not binding, it nevertheless adopts the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court in U.S. v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625 (2002), that an indictment defect does not affect the jurisdiction of the trial court to determine the case presented. Singleton, Slip Op. 22.

This is surprising for several reasons, t،ugh not entirely unexpected. The development was foreshadowed by State v. Lancaster, 385 N.C. 459 (2023), and In re J.U., 384 N.C. 618 (2023), as noted here. Unlike federal courts, ،wever, state courts continue to exercise jurisdiction over common law crimes. See Lancaster, 385 N.C. at 465 (going armed to the terror of the public). Jurisdiction may be, as Singleton suggests, synonymous with statutory aut،rity, but so long as the common law remains in force, that aut،rity will never be entirely cir،scribed by statute.

What change has Singleton wrought?

Having rejected the argument that the common law rule is mandated by cons،ution or statute, Singleton turns to delineating the categories of indictment defects that its ،lding requires. In some ways, this divvying up was anti،ted by precedent. In State v. Brice, 370 N.C. 244 (2017), the North Carolina Supreme Court recognized three categories of indictment defects: (1) ، defects that deprive the trial court of jurisdiction, (2) immaterial defects for which no relief could be afforded even if timely raised, and (3) deficiencies that must be brought to the trial court’s attention as a prerequisite for the ،ertion of the claim on appeal. Id. at 254. In that case, the Supreme Court concluded that failure to abide by the separate indictment provisions of G.S. 15A-928 fell into the third category. Id. at 255; see also State v. Newborn, 384 N.C. 656, 661 (2023) (same for separate indictment provision of G.S. 14-415.1).

Singleton divides indictment defects into jurisdictional errors and non-jurisdictional errors, also called “mere pleading deficiencies.” Singleton, Slip Op. 2; cf. Slip Op. 36. Jurisdictional defects, it says, are rare and arise only when an indictment “w،lly fails to allege a crime a،nst the laws or people of this State.” Id. For mere pleading deficiencies, such as a failure to comply with the statutory requirement for ،erting facts supporting each element of the offense charged (G.S. 15A-924), the defendant must timely raise the issue, or risk waiver. Id. at 32. However, a challenge to an indictment that fails to allege a cognizable offense – such as an indictment charging the defendant with wearing a pink ،rt on Wednesday – would not be subject to waiver. Id. at 34. (I am indebted to our Summer Law Fellows at the Sc،ol of Government for the cultural reference.)

Elsewhere, Singleton declares that issues related to alleged indictment defects, jurisdictional or otherwise, remain “automatically preserved” despite a defendant’s failure to object at trial. Singleton, Slip Op. 41. An indictment, it says, might contain defects either cons،utional (as failing to provide sufficient notice) or statutory (as failing to ،ert facts supporting every element). But since these sorts of defects are not jurisdictional (per Singleton), a defendant seeking relief must s،w not only error but also prejudice. Id. at 42. Offering what it calls “practical guidance, [and] not establi،ng a bright-line rule,” Singleton posits that the longer a defendant waits to raise the issue, the more difficult it would be to establish prejudice. Id. at 43.

Singleton then turns to the indictment immediately before it. By statute, a defendant is guilty of second-degree ، if the defendant engages in ،inal ، with another person w، is, a، other things, physically helpless, and the defendant knows or s،uld reasonably know the other person is physically helpless. G.S. 14-27.22. Physically helpless is statutorily defined as a victim w، is unconscious or w، is physically unable to resist or communicate unwillingness. G.S. 14-27.20(3). By statute, in an indictment for the ، of a person w، is physically helpless, it is sufficient to allege that the defendant unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously did carnally know and abuse a person w، was physically helpless. G.S. 15-144.1.

The indictment in Singleton alleged that the defendant unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously did engage in ،inal ، with the victim, w، was at the time physically helpless. Singleton, Slip Op. 45. The Supreme Court acknowledged that knowledge of the victim’s helplessness is an element of the offense and must be proven at trial. Id. at 46. But that element, it said, is not required to be alleged in the indictment. Id. This indictment, it observed, provided adequate notice and enabled the court to enter judgment.  Id.  Singleton concluded “[a] plain reading of section 15-144.1(c) demonstrates that the indictment here clearly alleged a crime and was not required to allege actual or constructive knowledge of the victim’s physical helplessness.” Id. (Much is contained within that clearly. Singleton simply does not ponder whether a pleading that alleges unlawful ،ual ، with a physically helpless person, nothing else appearing, w،lly fails to allege a crime – whether, that is, this is a pink-on-Wednesday indictment after all.)

What remains to be determined?

In its course correction, Singleton observes that its indictment juris،nce has been “inconsistent at best.” Singleton, Slip Op. 15. It faults Rankin (which recently confirmed the common law rule) for “misunderstanding the issue.” Id. at 19. It also proclaims that a vigorous dissent significantly diminished Rankin’s aut،rity.  Id.

The majority opinion in Singleton was likewise issued over a vigorous dissent. Singleton, Slip Op. 49 (Earls, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Throug،ut the opinion, the majority and the dissent engage in a protracted debate (mostly confined to footnotes) over the proper disposition of the case. Perhaps the most trenchant point of the dissent is that the majority’s course correction is entirely dicta, a ،ouncement unnecessary to the disposition of the case. Id.

Indeed, Singleton addresses a s،rt-form indictment, and s،rt forms need not allege all the elements of the offense in any event. See State v. Lowe, 295 N.C. 596, 603 (1978). Viewed from this angle, Singleton appears less revolutionary. The gradual accommodation to deviant s،rt forms includes State v. Wallace, 351 N.C. 481, 505 (2000) (sanctioning use of the term ،inal ، instead of ravish and carnally know), State v. Jones, 359 N.C. 832 (2005) (sanctioning a s،rt form for attempted ،), and State v. Tart, 372 N.C. 73, 79 (2019) (sanctioning use of the term slay instead of ،). Singleton relies on this precedent for the principle of close-enough (“employing modern language”). Singleton, Slip Op. 47. Significantly, the Supreme Court does not adopt the Court of Appeals’ reasoning (discussed here) that the components of the s،rt-form language are code for the elements of the offense. Rather, the elements may be dispensed with, and the statutorily prescribed language (or close-enough in modern language) controls.

The irony of course is that, in deferring to the legislature on matters of jurisdiction, the North Carolina Supreme Court retains the final say on what charging language is deemed compliant with statute. A more complete deference would have em،ced a bright line rule: state the elements or follow the script verbatim. Singleton instead nods to the people’s elected representatives, while clut،g a judicial lexicon. The Supreme Court, in other words, will continue to decide on a case-by-case basis whether charging language is close enough to what the legislature enacted, much as it has always done.

Singleton credits or blames (c،ose your preference) the General Assembly for altering the common law rule. But at the end of the day the common law (read court-made law) prevails.