State v. Hodge, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Feb. 18, 2020)

The defendant was charged with three counts of breaking and entering, three counts of larceny after breaking and entering, two counts of obtaining property by false pretenses, and one count of felonious possession of stolen goods. The State ostensibly indicted the defendant as an habitual felon, for which the defendant waived arraignment, but the grand jury had returned the indictment marked as “NOT A TRUE BILL.” At the close of the State’s evidence at the trial of the underlying felonies, the trial judge granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss the breaking and entering charges, the related larceny charges, and one of the false pretenses counts. The jury convicted the defendant of one false pretense count and of the lesser offense of misdemeanor possession of stolen goods. Those convictions rested on the defendant’s possession of five stolen videogames and the sale of those videogames to a pawn shop for $12. After the jury’s verdict, the trial judge granted the State’s request to continue sentencing to obtain a new habitual felon indictment. The defendant was thereafter tried on the new habitual felon indictment and sentenced to 115 to 150 months in prison.

The defendant argued at trial and on appeal that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to try and sentence the defendant as an habitual felon. A majority of the Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument, relying on State v. Oakes, 113 N.C. App. 332 (1994). Quoting from a portion of the Oakes opinion, the majority stated that an habitual felon indictment must be part of a prosecution “for which no judgment” has yet been entered. Oakes, 113 N.C. App. at 340. Accordingly, because judgment had not yet been entered, the State could obtain and prosecute a new habitual felon indictment. The majority also held that the trial judge did not abuse her discretion in granting a continuance to allow the State to obtain a new habitual felon indictment, rejecting the defendant’s argument that the continuance was improper because it resulted in an exponential increase in his sentence. The dissenting judge distinguished the current case from Oakes. The dissent observed that Oakes found that the defect in the habitual felon indictment was “technical” and “[a]t the time defendant entered his plea to the underlying substantive felony and proceeded to trial, there was pending against him an habitual felon indictment presumed valid by virtue of its ‘return by the grand jury as a true bill.’” Id., 113 N.C. App. at 339. Here, there was not a true bill of indictment, and allowing the State to obtain a new habitual felon indictment after the defendant entered his plea to the underlying felony was, in the dissent’s view, “beyond the boundaries of due process.” [Note: For a further discussion of case law on when the State may obtain a superseding habitual felon indictment, see Jeff Welty, North Carolina’s Habitual Felon, Violent Habitual Felon, Habitual Breaking and Entering Laws, ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE BULLETIN No. 2013/07, at 14–16 (Aug. 2013) (discussing cases allowing superseding habitual felon indictment for technical defects after trial of underlying felony but not for substantive changes).]