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DWI citation tolled statute of limitations.

Byline: Heath Hamacher

After rulings by the district court, superior court, and state Court of Appeals, Marian Curtis appeared well on her way to beating a drunken driving charge because the statute of limitations had expired.

But then the Supreme Court of North Carolina chimed in, unanimously holding in State v. Curtis that while a former version of a state law appeared to require that an indictment or presentment be filed in order to toll the two-year statute of limitations for misdemeanors, a citation is sufficient to toll the statute of limitations applicable to her DWI.

Curtis was cited for DWI and other charges in August 2012. A magistrate's order was issued a few days later.

In 2015, Curtis moved to dismiss the charges. She argued that because she was because she was filing a pretrial objection pursuant to Section 15A-922(c) of the General Statutes, the state would typically be required to file a statement of charges. But because Section 15-1 establishes a two-year statute of limitations for misdemeanors, Curtis argued that her charges must be dismissed instead.

A district court judge held that Curtis had never been charged "via indictment, presentment, or warrant," that the statute of limitations had not been tolled, and that it had been more than two years since the alleged offense, and thus Section 15-1 barred further prosecution. The judge dismissed the charges, and a superior court judge affirmed the ruling.

It tolls for thee

On appeal by the state, the Court of Appeals reasoned that Section 15-1 creates a two-year statute of limitations for certain misdemeanors because it provides, in part, that "all misdemeanors except malicious misdemeanors, shall be presented or found by the grand jury within two years after the commission of the same." It held that the state had two years to either prosecute the case or issue a warrant, indictment, or presentment that would toll the statute of limitations, and it failed to do so.

The Supreme Court granted a petition for discretionary review. The state argued that any criminal pleading that establishes jurisdiction in the district court should toll the two-year statute of limitations, and that the state was not barred from prosecuting the DWI.

On Aug. 17, the high court agreed, finding the issue before it one of statutory interpretation.

From 1943 until 2017, Section 15-1 stated that all misdemeanors except malicious misdemeanors must be presented or found by the grand jury within two years after the commission of the same, "and not afterwards."

Writing for the court, Justice Barbara Jackson noted that the court had previously determined that Section 15-1 directed only that "in criminal cases where an indictment or presentment is required, the date on which the indictment or presentment has been brought or found by the grand jury marks the beginning of the criminal proceeding and arrests the statute of limitations."

In State v. Underwood, it had held that in all misdemeanor cases where there has been a conviction in a lower court that had final jurisdiction of the offense, the defendant may appeal to the superior court and be tried upon the original warrant, and "the statute of limitations is tolled from the date of the issuance of the warrant."

In the end, citation suffices

Here, Jackson wrote, Curtis was unpersuasive in arguing that Underwood carves out a single exception to the plain language of Section 15-1 to allow warrants to toll the statute of limitations.

"Although our holding in Underwood addressed the specific factual circumstances of that case, the critical distinction we drew was more generally between crimes that require grand jury action to convey jurisdiction to the trial court and crimes that do not," Jackson wrote.

It would be absurd, the court added, to require the state to charge a defendant by indictment or presentment to toll the statute of limitations when the state has already obtained an otherwise valid criminal pleading that conveys jurisdiction.

Since 1975, the court found, the General Statutes have directed that "the citation, criminal summons, warrant for arrest, or magistrate's order" serves as the state's pleading for a misdemeanor prosecuted in the district court, "unless the prosecutor files a statement of charges, or there is objection to trial on a citation."

Since a criminal citation may now serve as a charging document for misdemeanors, the purpose of the statute of limitations was satisfied when officers issued Curtis the citationa constitutionally and statutorily proper criminal pleading that conveyed jurisdiction to the district court to try Curtis for the crime chargedfor DWI, the court found.

"We cannot conclude that the General Assembly intended the illogical result that an otherwise valid criminal pleading that vests jurisdiction in the trial court would not also toll the statute of limitations," Jackson wrote.

Curtis was represented by Timothy Rohr of Wilson, Lackey & Rohr in Lenoir. Lawyers Weekly was unable to speak with Rohr before going to press with the print edition, but spoke with him and will update the online version soon.

The 12-page decision is State v. Curtis (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-067-18). An opinion digest is available online at

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher

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Title Annotation:State v. Curtis, Supreme Court of North Carolina
Author:Hamacher, Heath
Publication:North Carolina Lawyers Weekly
Date:Aug 24, 2018
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