State v. Stallings, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Apr. 21, 2020)

(1) The defendant was indicted for trafficking in MDMA, among other charges. When the case came on for trial, the trial judge called in prospective jurors and questioned them about undue hardships and conflicts with the parties and informed them of the charges against the defendant. The prosecutor then requested a bench conference at which he pointed out that the substance in the lab report showed that the relevant substance was methamphetamine, not MDMA. The prosecutor gave the defendant the choice between having the State dismiss the MDMA charge and reindict for trafficking in methamphetamine, or waiving indictment and proceeding by bill of information. The defendant chose the latter and was convicted at trial. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the State did not file the superseding information “before . . . commencement of trial” within the meaning of G.S. 15A-646. The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that G.S. 15A-646 does not place any timing deadline on the State, but rather merely imposes a ministerial duty on the judge to dismiss the initial charge if a superseding indictment or information is filed before trial. The appellate court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the defendant was not formally arraigned on the new charge, as the lack of formal arraignment is not revisable error when the defendant does not object and assert inadequate knowledge of the charge. (2) The defendant also argued that the trial court committed plain error by failing, despite the lack of a request or objection, to instruct the jury on the requirement that the defendant have guilty knowledge of the methamphetamine. The Court of Appeals rejected the argument, distinguishing an earlier case, State v. Coleman, 227 N.C. App. 354 (2013). In Coleman, the court found plain error when the trial court failed to instruct on guilty knowledge for a defendant convicted of trafficking heroin who knew he possessed drugs, but who thought he had marijuana and cocaine, not heroin. Here, the defendant denied any knowledge about the existence of the methamphetamine and argued that it belonged to someone else. Even assuming the trial court erred by not giving the instruction, the Court of Appeals concluded it would not rise to the level of plain error given the evidence against the defendant.