Law enforcement and public safety across North Carolina got a significant boost last year from the General Assembly as many bills supporting both became law. 

“We are very grateful to the leadership and members of the 2023 Legislature for all of the good legislation that they enacted that is very pro-law enforcement, pro-public safety, and very supportive of our victims,” Eddie Caldwell, Jr. executive vice president and general counsel of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association told Carolina Journal in a recent phone interview. “It was an outstanding year in terms of the legislature enacting good legislation related to law enforcement and public safety.”

Included among the bills that are now law is H.B. 34, Protect Those Who Serve and Protect Act. He said the association was pleased with the law because it makes it a Class H felony, which carries a sentence of four to twenty-five months, to shoot into unoccupied emergency vehicles.

“The shooter often does not know whether it’s occupied or not, but the reason they are shooting into the vehicle is because they are attempting to kill the law enforcement officer, and there should be a punishment for trying to kill just as much as if they were actually successful, but not necessarily the same penalty,” he said. “That’s the reason for this bill, and we felt like it ought to apply to any emergency personnel, not just law enforcement.”

A whole new level of rioting took place across the country after the death of George Floyd in May 2020. Properties were destroyed, and people were injured, including in cities across North Carolina, including Charlotte and Raleigh. Caldwell said while law enforcement supports people’s constitutional right to protest, picket, and march, they don’t have a right to tear up another person’s property or injure someone. He said H.B. 40, Prevent Rioting and Civil Disorder, addressed several concerns related to that conduct and another issue.

“The other thing that this bill addresses related to that is the situation where people who are involved in this kind of conduct get arrested, taken to the magistrate’s office, and either released on no bond, or on a minimal bond, and then they’re back out to protest before the officers even get their report finished,” he said. “Some folks might call it catch-and-release. It is particularly offensive to officers to find out that people they’ve arrested trying to protect the public are back out engaging in this activity again so soon, and that’s a major problem.”

S.B. 58, Protect Critical Infrastructure, increases punishment for property crimes committed against utilities. The bill was passed after the attack on the Moore County electric substations in December 2022. Caldwell said they feel that increasing penalties for damaging infrastructure like power substations and communication towers is important and will help deter those who want to commit those acts, which will, in turn, help with their main concern of public safety.

“When the power and cell phones go out, then it makes it much more difficult for our citizens to protect themselves, to contact law enforcement if somebody’s breaking into their house, to contact EMS if they’re having a medical emergency, so it’s more than just tearing up some property,” Caldwell stated. “The consequences are much more severe than that economically, and it’s a huge problem for public safety. Plus, deputies and other public safety officials have to spend all their time trying to deal with the power outage. For example, when the power goes out, all the stop lights and street lights go out, so the resources that are normally assigned to protecting the community at large have to be diverted to dealing with the misconduct of the criminals who caused it.”

Deaths from illegal drug use continue to rise in North Carolina, leading legislators to pass S.B. 189, Fentanyl Drug Offenses and Related Charges, which not only increased penalties on those convicted of trafficking in heroin, fentanyl, or carfentanil, but also made it a crime if the distribution of a controlled substance caused the death for a person who used it, regardless if it was sold to them or not. 

“It makes it clear that regardless of whether you sell the drugs or give the drugs away, if they cause someone’s death, then the provisions of the death by distribution law apply, and the prosecution by law enforcement and the district attorney does not have to prove whether you sold the drugs to somebody, or gave the drugs to them,” Caldwell said. “They’re dead either way, and the consequences of the person’s act are just as heinous, whether they gave the drugs away or sold the drugs.”

H.B. 186, Juv Just Mods/DOI/Expenses/Tech Changes, modified the law that will allow law enforcement to release identifying information of a juvenile to the public if they commit a serious criminal offense, with part of the law being named “Lyric and Devin’s Law,” named after Lyric Woods and Devin Clark, two Orange County teens who were killed by a classmate in 2022. The classmate fled to Delaware to avoid arrest. Law enforcement could not release identifying information to the public before the amendment, delaying his eventual arrest. Caldwell said in addition to the Orange County murders, there was another in Robeson County that also led to the passage of the bill.

He also said the delay in the apprehension makes it worrisome for the victim’s family, making them wonder if the person(s) will come back for them. With a quicker apprehension, their minds can be put at ease. This bill, he said, looks out for the victims in these cases. 

“That’s who really does look out for the victims, our criminal justice system,” Caldwell said. “It’s the sheriffs, the other law enforcement personnel, and the district attorneys because that’s who the victims turn to for information, for help, and for guidance.” 

Caldwell said the Sheriffs’ Association will be working with the legislature this year on ways to increase criminal penalties for issues surrounding fentanyl and on House Bills 810 and 768, which will help with the recruitment issues that law enforcement agencies are facing.

“These bills are designed to allow folks to continue to work who might have reached retirement age and continue to draw a salary and draw their retirement benefits, and so we’re very interested in that,” he said.