News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. criminal code a mess and needs a makeover, Smith says

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s criminal statutes are bloated but not beyond repair, a top legal expert says.

Hundreds of crimes are strewn across more than 140 chapters of the N.C. General Statutes. Chapter 14, which deals specifically with criminal law, holds more than 840 sections.

Worse yet, crimes extend beyond state code. Administrative and licensing bodies enact some regulations that are, by extension, enforced as criminal laws. The state also delegates ordinance authority to counties, cities, towns, and even metropolitan sewer districts.

The code is missing pieces, said Jessica Smith, professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, during a presentation Monday, April 9, at the John Locke Foundation. (See a video of the presentation here.) Some common law crimes, such as robbery, arson, burglary, and manslaughter, have yet to be codified in the general statutes.

Existing parts of the code are incredibly complex. Larceny, a crime including all theft of personal property, in North Carolina has portions of code designated to 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 failure to remove snow from the sidewalk outside one’s business.

With such proliferation of offenses, one of the biggest concerns is people don’t know what is — and isn’t — legal, said Smith, who literally wrote the 1,000-plus-page book on North Carolina crime laws.

“There’s no central database for collecting criminal ordinances. It’s impossible to say how many things we’ve made criminal in North Carolina.”

People should be able to get notice to inform their behavior accordingly, Smith said. Even a misdemeanor  — especially one committed without knowledge of the law — can ruin someone’s life.

Additionally, the system should be consistent, Smith said. Some offenses overlap, giving prosecutors a lot of flexibility and discretion. While that’s not always a bad thing, it mostly leads to “wildly different results, [and a] system that appears arbitrary and unfair.”

Recodification — rewriting the code — would help clean up the mess, she said. The law’s complexity is costly to the state and results in wrongful convictions and acquittals, inconsistent application, and lack of notice to residents.

Legislation setting up a commission to rewrite the criminal code passed last year in the state House. It didn’t get through the Senate, and it’s unclear whether the General Assembly will revisit the issue in this year’s short session.

Ultimately, criminal law should be rational, consistent, and written in the plain language laymen and law enforcers can understand, Smith said.

“It’s not about being soft on crime, it’s about being smart on crime.”