News: CJ Exclusives

Bill would clean up cluttered criminal code

Commission would have until December 2019 to streamline code; all agencies would have to report criminal penalties

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s criminal code is out of control, but lawmakers are ready to rein it in.

Hundreds of crimes are strewn across more than 140 chapters of the North Carolina General Statutes. Chapter 14 alone, which deals specifically with criminal law, holds more than 840 sections defining countless offenses.

Senate Bill 114, Annual Reports, Property Tax, and Recodification Commission, is poised to help legislators understand which laws are, and are not, useful.

The bill passed the House Wednesday. Among other things, it would create the Criminal Code Recodification Commission.

North Carolina’s Chief Justice Mark Martin would oversee the project.

The 25-member commission, which includes four House and four Senate members, would scrutinize all state crimes, including those created by cities, counties, government commissions, administrative bodies, and licensing boards.

Right now, the General Assembly allows those entities to devise crimes as they see fit, with little oversight, Jessica Smith, professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, told Carolina Journal. 

Senseless laws often result.

For example, anyone who allows a chicken or “fowl” to run free in the township of Ahoskie can be convicted of a misdemeanor, Smith said. Dozens of other cities have similar ordinances, she added.

Smith is the author of North Carolina Crimes, an exhaustive guide to the state’s criminal code. She often consults with court officials, and has provided education to law enforcers across the state.

Since the code isn’t streamlined into a database, it’s impossible for citizens to know exactly what’s legal and what’s not, she said.

Police officers aren’t much better off, she added.

The current version of North Carolina Crimes is roughly 1,000 pages. It gets longer every year.

“People ask me questions, and I have to look it up — and I wrote the book! I can’t imagine what it’s like for other people, or newer officers, or existing officers, to try and keep up,” Smith said.

The commission has a lot of work to do, and less than two years in which to do it.

Under S.B. 114, by Dec. 1, 2019, members are expected to produce a “fully drafted,  new, streamlined, comprehensive, orderly, and principled criminal code.”

The commission also will eliminate “unnecessary, inconsistent, or unlawful provisions in the code.”

Some laws are patently unjust and should be expunged, said Jon Guze, director of legal studies at the John Locke Foundation.

“Because so many of those laws and regulations criminalize conduct that is not inherently evil and does not cause harm to any identifiable victim, ordinary citizens cannot rely on their intuitive notions of right and wrong to alert them to the fact that they may be committing a crime,” Guze said.

Decriminalization is important, but a simplified system is the ultimate goal, Smith said.

“This isn’t about saying, ‘OK, we’re going to make a bunch of things not criminal.’ It’s about making the law more streamlined and comprehensive, and easier to understand for all people.”

S.B. 114 goes to the Senate for concurrence.