In re J.A.D., ____ N.C. ___, 2022-NCCOA-259 (Apr. 19, 2022)

In this Surry County juvenile case, a petition was filed alleging that the juvenile committed extortion by obtaining a digital image of a victim, without her knowledge or consent, in which she was in only her bra and underwear. The petition also alleged that the juvenile used the image to obtain food from the school cafeteria while threatening to expose the image if the victim refused to buy the food or do what the juvenile asked of her. The petition did not name the victim. The juvenile was adjudicated delinquent and the court entered a Level 1 disposition. On appeal the juvenile asserted that (1) the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the petition was fatally defective in that it failed to name the victim, (2) the juvenile’s motion to dismiss should have been granted because the crime of extortion requires threat of unlawful physical violence and the juvenile did not make such a threat, (3) there was a fatal variance between the threat alleged in the petition and the proof at the adjudication hearing, (4) the written findings in the adjudication order were insufficient, and (5) the disposition order was insufficient in its failure to contain findings of fact to demonstrate that the court considered all the required factors in G.S. 7B-2501(c).

(1) The Court of Appeals concluded that there was no fatal defect in the petition. Juvenile petitions are generally held to the same standards as criminal indictments in that they must aver every element of the offense with sufficient specificity to clearly apprises the juvenile of the conduct being charged. Like an indictment, a fatally deficient petition fails to evoke the jurisdiction of the court. Central to the offense of extortion is the wrongfulness of the method by which the juvenile seeks to obtain something of value. Slip op. at ¶ 23. A charging instrument charging extortion need only aver the material elements of the offense, which are 1) that a wrongful demand was made with 2) the intent to demand something of value. Slip op. at ¶ 24. The petition in this case sufficiently alleged each of these elements. It was not necessary to specifically name the victim.

(2) The Court also assumed, without holding, that G.S. 14-118.4 is an anti-threat statute, the court holds that First Amendment jurisprudence does not limit the application of this statute to threats of unlawful physical violence. Slip op. at ¶ 31. The definition of a true threat, as provided in State v. Taylor, 379 N.C. 589, 2021-NCSC-164, does not require that a threat includes unlawful physical violence. There is no constitutional rule that threats are protected speech unless they threaten unlawful physical violence. Slip op. at ¶ 34. The State was not required to prove that the juvenile threatened unlawful physical violence.

(3) Next, the Court concluded that there was no fatal variance between the petition and the evidence. The essential element of extortion is that the juvenile used a wrongful threat to obtain something of value. The precise identification of what that thing of value was is not material, as long as the State proves that the juvenile obtained or attempted to obtain something of value. Slip op. at ¶ 40. The specific language in the petition alleging that the juvenile sought to obtain food from the cafeteria was unnecessarily specific and therefore surplusage. The fact that the evidence showed that the juvenile asked the victim to do his homework and the petition alleged that he asked her to obtain food from the cafeteria did not create a fatal variance.

(4) Next, the Court concluded that there were insufficient written findings in the adjudication order. G.S. 7B-2411 requires that, at a minimum, the court state in a written adjudication order that the allegations in the petition have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Language on the pre-printed form used, stating that “The following facts have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt: . . ,”  followed by a finding that states, “[a]t the hearing before the judge, the juvenile was found to be responsible for extortion in violation of 14-118.4,” is insufficient to satisfy this statutory requirement. Only a conclusory statement that the juvenile was responsible for the offense is insufficient. The trial court must affirmatively state the burden of proof in its written findings without regard to the pre-printed language on the form. The case is remanded for the court to make the necessary written findings in the adjudication order. The dispositional order also incorporated the predisposition report and the juvenile’s risk and needs assessment by reference. There were no written findings related to the factors the court is required to consider under G.S. 7B-2501(c) when ordering a disposition. The order is therefore insufficient. Because the adjudication order is vacated, this disposition order is also vacated. However, the insufficiency of the disposition order provides an independent ground for vacating the disposition order. On remand, the trial court may hold a new dispositional hearing to hear additional evidence needed to appropriately consider the factors required by G.S. 7B-2501(c).