News: CJ Exclusives

Bill would make agencies list all crimes on N.C.’s books

Some North Carolina lawmakers are looking to simplify the state’s complex criminal code.

The criminal laws are bloated, inconsistent, and redundant, said Steven Walker, general counsel to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Walker and several lawmakers introduced House Bill 379, “Recodification Working Group.” The measure would require state agencies, boards, and commissions to sort through and report all crimes on their books. Sen. Andy Wells, R-Alexander, and Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, were instrumental in forming the legislation. 

Hundreds of crimes are peppered across more than 140 chapters of the N.C. General Statutes, and hundreds of other misdemeanors extend beyond the state code. Administrative and licensing bodies enact some regulations that are, by extension, enforced as criminal laws. The state also gives counties, cities, towns, and even metropolitan sewer districts the power to put crimes on the books.

The system makes for a haphazard collection of overlapping and oddly specific crimes. Larceny, a crime already including all theft of personal property, in North Carolina has separate offenses for larceny of dairy crates, motor fuel, political signs, and even ginseng, pine needles, and straw.

Some towns have laws against chickens running free. Others criminalize business owners who fail to remove snow from their sidewalks, or punish people who allow female dogs in heat to run free.

The code doesn’t makes sense to most lawmakers, much less the average resident, Walker said. No one has enacted these laws out of ill intent. It’s just a cycle spun out of control, he said.

H.B. 379 is poised to help clear things up.

Before anyone can rewrite the code, the state must take inventory of every crime on the books, Walker said. Under the legislation — approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, June 7 — agencies, boards, and commissions would report all listed crimes to the General Assembly by Dec. 1, 2018.

The Administrative Office of the Courts would sort through common law crimes and the general statutes, identifying redundant, inconsistent, obsolete, and unconstitutional crimes. That list would go to the legislature no later than Feb. 1, 2019.

“We have to make sure that people know what the law is,” Walker said. “Part of the whole idea is to build this so the public can know what’s going on.”

Once legislators know how many laws are cluttering the code, cleanup can begin, Walker said. A working group, the parameters of which haven’t been specified, would be responsible for overhauling statutes.

That committee could consider limiting agencies that try to enact new misdemeanors, he said, since the point of recodification is ensuring the code remains clear and understandable.

It’s important for people to inform their behavior according to the law — but they can’t do that if the law is hidden, said Jessica Smith, professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government. Smith literally wrote the 1,000-plus-page book on North Carolina crime laws.

Overlaps in the code distort the system into one that appears arbitrary and unfair, Smith said during an April presentation at the John Locke Foundation.

North Carolina likely will form a public database in which people can more easily find out what is — and isn’t — criminal, Walker said.

H.B. 379 now heads to the Senate Rules Committee.