News: CJ Exclusives

Criminal law reforms remain priority for some legislators amid COVID-19 pandemic

If you wear a skimpy swimsuit on North Carolina’s Kure Beach, you’re a criminal. 

If you live in Huntersville and have an unmown lawn with grass above 10 inches, you’re a criminal. 

If you use a can of Silly String inside Mount Airy’s town limits, you’re a criminal. 

These are just a sampling of the countless crimes archived in local code books across North Carolina. Whether they should be criminal remains a matter of debate — though state lawmakers have set in motion efforts to clean up North Carolina’s disastrously confusing criminal code. 

It’s taking too long to get those efforts off the ground — especially now that the state is engrossed in fighting COVID-19, some lawmakers say. Though it’s been a long slog yielding few results, two particularly invested legislators aren’t giving up. 

The General Assembly is awaiting review of every single crime made by North Carolina towns, cities, counties, and metropolitan sewer districts. Senate Bill 584, which became law in 2019, amended existing rules ordering all localities to submit criminal law reports to the General Assembly. The N.C. General Statutes Commission, a non-standing legislative committee made up of lawmakers and members of the public, was supposed to inventory those ordinances, then decide whether the criminal penalties should be part of a generally applicable state law. 

Its deadline is May 1. But nearly 10 months after S.B. 584 became law, the state is no closer to decoding the mess.

The work is daunting for the statutes commission, members said during an April 3 meeting. So far, the commission received roughly 700 reports from various localities across the state. But it’s not the number of reports that’s causing a headache. It’s the lack of organization. Every locality submitted reports in varying formats. The dearth of consistency and information make evaluation impossible, say the experts who’ve examined them. 

Given the current state of the crime reports, we don’t think it’s feasible for the commission to make a final determination about whether any existing ordinance or regulatory crimes should be replaced with new statutory crimes—certainly not by May 1, and probably not at all unless something can be done to improve the quality of the reports,” Jon Guze, director of legal studies at the John Locke Foundation, told the commission April 3.

Some, like Sen. Andy Wells, R-Catawba, and Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, think it’s time to move things along. But it’s going to take some work for the House and Senate to agree on a starting point. 

Riddell has long supported the idea of a recodification commission dedicated solely to the criminal law reform project. Cleaning up North Carolina’s criminal code will mean a total overhaul of both local and state level crimes. Outdated local ordinances, like one in Forest City requiring travelers to stop and call city hall before driving a car through town, are bewildering enough. But state crimes complicate things further. Of the 2,500 crimes found in the N.C. General Statutes, only 900 are where you would expect them to be: in Chapter 14, under the title “Criminal Law.”

Many of the state’s crimes are oddly specific. Larceny, for instance, is a crime already including all theft of personal property. North Carolina, though, has separate offenses for larceny of dairy crates, motor fuel, political signs, and even ginseng, pine needles, and straw.

Sorting through the pile requires a panel of experts with time and energy, Riddell told Carolina Journal.

Wells agrees, but he doesn’t think another commission is the answer. The senator, simply put, wants to stop talking and get to work.

“I’d just like to start somewhere. Anywhere,” Wells told CJ. 

A working group might be better than a commission, Wells said. Whatever the next move is, he said, the legislature needs to keep pushing forward. 

House and Senate members have yet to agree on a plan, Wells and Riddell told CJ. But both lawmakers agree better organization is essential. The piles of ineffective reports submitted to the statutes commission offer lawmakers a chance to back up and evaluate what went wrong, Riddell said.  

The legislature and statutes commission should consider an online format for towns, cities, counties, and metropolitan sewer districts to submit their reports in a searchable, streamlined format, Riddell said. Something as simple as a spreadsheet might work. 

“It would make it much easier to find the information that we’re looking for,” Riddell said. “What we’ve got is just a polyglot of different forms and submissions.”

Riddell also plans to run legislation extending the commission’s May 1 deadline — though it’ll likely be weeks into the legislature’s short session before that bill gets filed. 

While the economic and health concerns of COVID-19 are likely to keep lawmakers preoccupied, it’s important to keep sights on counting, sorting, and clarifying the state’s crimes, Wells and Riddell said. 

“One of the most heated debates in the COVID-19 world is who has the power to do what,” Wells said. The state and its localities owe it to residents to be clear about authority structures and criminal penalties, he said. 

COVID-19 is yet another reminder that regulations often go farther than necessary in an attempt to protect the public — usually with adverse results, Riddell said. North Carolina, along with countless other states, has rolled back hefty amounts of regulation to fight the pandemic and keep its economy running. 

“My guess says that we’re going to end up with increased code regulations through this whole [coronavirus] process,” Riddell said, “and so it’s probably going to be even more necessary than before to clean up whatever is added.”