What constitutes a crime in North Carolina isn’t as obvious as you’d think, thanks to our confusing and ineffective criminal code. Sometimes our code lets the guilty walk free. Other times it ensnares a person, like a bear trap, for seemingly harmless behavior. Two Greensboro incidents illustrate the injustices created by our flawed code and why North Carolinians should demand reform.
Five years ago, a Greensboro woman was charged with felony littering for dumping heating fuel on someone else’s land. The woman admitted to the act, but she took the case to trial, apparently to exploit an ambiguity in the law. Neither the judge nor the jury bought her defense, and she was convicted in 2016. But on appeal, she targeted a different ambiguity in the statute — and both the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court agreed with her.
Despite admitting to the crime, the defendant’s conviction was thrown out. Hardly a just resolution.
Then there’s the case of Joymongers. In February, the Guilford County Health Department warned the owners of the popular taproom that allowing dogs inside their establishment was a misdemeanor violation of the state’s health code. The health code bans most live animals from entering “food establishments.” Joymongers doesn’t serve food, but because of the way the code defines “food establishment,” the taproom found itself afoul of the law and in trouble. Fortunately for Joymongers, a day of public outrage caused the Health Department to reverse course and seek a legislative fix.
In both cases, North Carolina’s poorly drafted criminal laws caused injustice.
Unless policymakers dig in to make changes, you could be the next person to be ensnared and not even know until the law comes knocking.
Thousands of crimes are scattered across untold pages of state statutes, regulations and local ordinances. And if you managed to read through all of these laws, you still might not be able to define some basic crimes. For instance, you wouldn’t be able to name the elements of larceny or robbery — “common law” crimes which still receive their definition from court cases rather than statutes. But at least you’d know that it’s a misdemeanor to let your grass grow taller than 12 inches in High Point.
This tangled labyrinth of crimes creates a system that treats people harshly for relatively harmless behavior while sometimes allowing dangerous or violent acts to go unpunished. Pick a flower off the dogwood in the park? You’ve probably committed a misdemeanor under N.C. General Statute 14-129. Break into a home and assault a woman inside to steal back $20 you gave her to buy you drugs? That’s not robbery according to the N.C. Court of Appeals’ opinion in State v. Cox filed in March.
To make things right, North Carolina needs a criminal code that is self-contained, rather than scattered throughout more than 100 chapters of the General Statutes. We need a code that clearly defines criminal behavior and eliminates ambiguities and technicalities. We need a code that gives people fair notice of the law. In short, we need a criminal code that is effective, efficient and fair.
Fortunately, the General Assembly has taken steps toward meaningful reform. A bill passed in 2018 set in motion the process of collecting information on crimes embedded in state and local laws, rules, regulations and ordinances. And last month, S.B. 584 passed the Senate. It’s a bill that would freeze a longstanding statute that automatically makes it a crime to break most local ordinances, whether you know it or not.
Good progress, indeed. The information received from last year’s bill has clarified the scope of the problem and focused the work that must be done. And S.B. 584, if it becomes law, would significantly slow the addition of new crimes statewide. But the ultimate fix is recodification: a complete rewriting of our criminal laws.
It’s a daunting task, but an achievable fix to an overwhelming need for fairness, justice, and clarity. North Carolinians deserve a code that punishes wrongdoers without harassing the blameless.
Mike Schietzelt is a Legal Fellow at the John Locke Foundation. He holds a J.D. from Duke University School of Law and clerked for Chief Justice Mark Martin on the Supreme Court of North Carolina.
These comments are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily express the position of the John Locke Foundation.