State v. Brawley, 370 N.C. 626 (Apr. 6, 2018)

On appeal from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 807 S.E.2d 159 (2017), the court per curiam reversed for the reasons stated in the dissenting opinion below, thus holding that a larceny from a merchant indictment was not fatally defective. A majority of the panel of the Court of Appeals held that the indictment, which named the victim as “Belk’s Department Stores, an entity capable of owning property,” failed to adequately identify the victim. The court of appeals stated:

In specifying the identity of a victim who is not a natural person, our Supreme Court provides that a larceny indictment is valid only if either: (1) the victim, as named, itself imports an association or a corporation [or other legal entity] capable of owning property[;] or, (2) there is an allegation that the victim, as named, if not a natural person, is a corporation or otherwise a legal entity capable of owning property[.]” (quotations omitted).

The court of appeals further clarified: “A victim’s name imports that the victim is an entity capable of owning property when the name includes a word like “corporation,” “incorporated,” “limited,” “church,” or an abbreviated form thereof.” Here, the name “Belk’s Department Stores” does not itself import that the victim is a corporation or other type of entity capable of owning property. The indictment did however include an allegation that the store was “an entity capable of owning property.” Thus the issue presented was whether alleging that the store is some unnamed type of entity capable of owning property is sufficient or whether the specific type of entity must be pleaded. The Court of Appeals found that precedent “compel[led]” it to conclude that the charging language was insufficient. The Court of Appeals rejected the State’s argument that an indictment which fails to specify the victim’s entity type is sufficient so long as it otherwise alleges that the victim is a legal entity. The dissenting judge believed that the indictment adequately alleged the identity of the owner. The dissenting judge stated: “Given the complexity of corporate structures in today’s society, I think an allegation that the merchant named in the indictment is a legal entity capable of owning property is sufficient to meet the requirements that an indictment apprise the defendant of the conduct which is the subject of the accusation.” As noted, the Supreme Court reversed for reasons stated in the dissent.