Opinion: Carolina Beat

Too Many Laws On The Books

Because of tax reform, less burdensome regulations, and a general spirit of optimism, you have confidence that North Carolina is on the right track and this is the place to invest and start a business. You leap into the world of entrepreneurship. But you fail to file a required form on time and are convicted of a crime.

Welcome to overcriminalization in North Carolina. It’s making business owners into criminals every day.

Some offenses against people and property should be treated as crimes, such as murder, rape, larceny, or theft. Those actions clearly are wrong, and it’s difficult to commit them unless you intend to do so. But other criminal laws ensnare innocent, well-meaning North Carolinians as they try to enter professions, start businesses, and exercise their rights.

Chapter 14, the criminal law section of North Carolina’s General Statutes, has 765 sections. Additional criminal laws are scattered throughout other sections of the statutes — drug laws in Chapter 90, motor vehicle laws in Chapter 20, and various “catch-all provisions” found elsewhere.

Search “criminal” under N.C. General Statutes, and you’ll get 1,304 matches. North Carolina’s criminal code is larger than that in any of our neighboring states — a whopping 55 percent larger than Virginia’s and 38 percent larger than South Carolina’s, for instance.

Criminal offenses don’t stop with the statute books. Additional criminal offenses are written into state agency regulations and enforced by unelected bureaucrats in areas including agriculture, environment, and public health.

Then there are criminal penalties imposed by occupational licensing boards — boards controlled by those who currently practice professions such as hairdressing and landscape architecture and want to keep newcomers out. Violations of local ordinances also can carry criminal penalties.

There are so many crimes on the books scattered across so many jurisdictions that even the most seasoned criminal-defense lawyer is hard-pressed to say how many criminal laws we have in North Carolina. Without any intent to break a law, honest, hard-working citizens can be charged with crimes carrying heavy penalties, social stigma, and even jail time.

While North Carolina adds new crimes to the books — lawmakers have added an average of 34 new offenses just to the criminal code every year from 2008 through 2013 — outdated, obsolete, and even unconstitutional penalties remain. So the code gets bigger. But not better.

The North Carolina General Assembly has recognized that criminalization has gone too far. The Justice Reinvestment Act of 2011, the Sentencing Commission, and the General Statutes Commission have begun amending, modernizing, and streamlining criminal law. Many misdemeanors were reclassified in the 2013 budget.

But there’s more to do:

* Apply regulatory reform provisions that the General Assembly enacted in 2011 to criminal offenses, requiring a regular review of old laws. Amend or discard those that aren’t needed. A cleaner criminal code will return integrity to the system and make it easier to comply.

* Create a bipartisan study commission to look at criminal penalties in administrative rules, and create a method for organizing and clarifying criminal laws so ordinary citizens can access, understand, and comply with them.

* End the practice of filing criminal charges against people who unknowingly violate rules and have no intent of doing wrong. In legal terms, create a mens rea provision.

It should not be a criminal offense to sell hot dogs, whiten teeth, conduct sleep studies, offer dietary advice, or fail to file a report. It’s time to instill common sense into North Carolina’s criminal code.

Let’s keep criminals who threaten public safety behind bars and stop overusing criminal penalties that undermine the integrity of our justice system and threaten everyone else’s freedom.

Becki Gray (@beckigray) is vice president of outreach at the John Locke Foundation.