by Mike Schietzelt
North Carolina’s criminal code is a complex beast. As we’ve mentioned time and time again, crimes are tucked all over the place. There’s a crime in more than 140 chapters of the General Statutes. Agencies, boards, and commissions have created other crimes by rule and scattered them across the Administrative Code. And countless additional crimes can be found in county, city, and town ordinances.
As I sort through these crimes, I often wonder how some of them came about. Some of these crimes are so far out there that I really want to know their origin stories.
A perfect example: G.S. 14-79.1, which prohibits “Larceny of pine needles or pine straw.” Fortunately, some knowledgeable people helped me piece this one together.
As it turns out, pine straw theft is a real problem in parts of our great state. And before G.S. 14-79.1 passed, it couldn’t be punished. Larceny is a common-law crime in North Carolina, and the common-law definition of larceny only applies to personal property. Ungathered pine straw is real property. So stealing it wasn’t considered larceny until the General Assembly passed this law. The same goes for ungathered crops, animals, more animals, and, apparently, ginseng.
So with that, here are three crimes, the origins of which I am intensely curious about:
“Any person who shall remove or take and carry away . . . any property that is affixed to real property, with the intent to steal the property, shall be guilty of larceny and shall be punished as provided by statute.”
If you’ve ever sold a house before (or taken a property law class), you might remember that home fixtures convey with the land. (You don’t usually get to take the ceiling fans or TV mounts with you when you sell the house and move out.) Because fixtures are fixed to real property, they’re generally treated as real property.
And if you remember from a couple of paragraphs above, stealing real property isn’t larceny at common law. So it makes perfect sense that the General Assembly would add this patch to the common law. That is not what is spectacular about this section.
What is spectacular is that this section only became law in 2008. For more than two centuries, presumably it was not larceny for someone to make off with your laminate flooring. But this never required a legislative fix. What happened around 2008 that caught the attention of the legislature? Was there a wall sconce theft epidemic? A series of unfortunate shelving heists?
Someone must know the answer. But until they tell me, my mind will run amok with wild theories about the impetus for this legislation.
Apart from my curiosity about its origins, G.S. 14-83.1 is interesting because it demonstrates a widespread issue with our criminal code. So many of our crimes retain common-law definitions that are hundreds of years old. Larceny is the taking of personal property but not real property. Arson is the burning of a dwelling but not other buildings. Instead of redefining these crimes by statute, the General Assembly has simply added new sections to the criminal code. Over two centuries, these additions have added up, making the criminal code longer and less accessible with each passing year.
These two sections prohibit the same thing. Well, almost. There are two differences between the statutes that I find puzzling.
G.S. 14-111.1 states: “Any person who with the intent to defraud shall obtain ambulance services for himself or other persons without intending at the time of obtaining such services to pay a reasonable charge therefor, shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”
G.S. 14-111.2 reads similarly: “Any person who with intent to defraud shall obtain ambulance services without intending at the time of obtaining such services to pay, if financially able, any reasonable charges therefor shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.” (Emphasis added.)
So the first prohibits obtaining ambulance services without intending to pay. The second prohibits obtaining ambulance services without intending to pay if you’re financially able to pay. But the penalty is the same.
By itself, that distinction is interesting. But there’s more. G.S. 14-111.1 only applies in three counties: Buncombe, Haywood, and Madison. G.S. 14-111.2 applies in 51 counties. That number was much smaller when this crime first appeared in 1967, but more counties have been added over the years, including Haywood County, which gives this Tale of Two Statutes an interesting plot twist. Why did Haywood County need both of these prohibitions? Why make a distinction between intending not to pay and intending not to pay if financially able? Why is the specific crime of fraudulently obtaining an ambulance only prohibited in 53 counties?
I have so many questions. But again, setting those questions aside, these sections illustrate another widespread problem with the code: its lack of uniformity. Different behaviors are criminalized in different ways, occasionally by statute, but typically by ordinances that vary wildly from town to town and county to county.
Simple assault and battery is a class 2 misdemeanor in North Carolina. Unless, of course, you’re attacking a referee during a game.
Subdivision (b)(9) of this statute makes it a more serious class 1 misdemeanor if a person “[c]ommits an assault and battery against a sports official when the sports official is discharging or attempting to discharge official duties at a sports event, or immediately after the sports event at which the sports official discharged official duties.”
This provision was added to section 14-33 in 1993, and I can’t help but wonder why. North Carolinians are passionate about our college basketball. But was there an incident or a series of incidents that sparked this legislation? Why did we need this extra deterrent to avoid assaults on coaches, referees, and umpires?
Once again, this is representative of a larger issue with the criminal code. Over the years, specific variations of more general crimes have popped up in the criminal code. Often, a shocking news story will captivate the mind of legislators or their constituents, and the result will be a piece of legislation that responds specifically to that news story.
The problem, of course, is that these more specific crimes unnecessarily lengthen the criminal code, while creating unjustified disparities in punishments. What makes assaulting a high school football coach worse than assaulting a grocery store clerk? Most of the time, probably nothing. So why treat it more harshly?
The bigger story
These kinds of crimes are all over our criminal code. There are prohibitions on using Silly String in Mount Airy and free-roaming chickens in Ahoskie. Prohibitions against burning schoolhouses, outhouses, and ginhouses, all accomplished by different statutes. And thanks to the ancient common-law crimes still in force, we had to adopt a statute to abolish the common-law crime of suicide.
There are interesting stories behind many of these laws. But when pieced together, these laws tell the broader story of a criminal code in disarray. With the information gained from Session Law 2019-198: Criminal Law Reform, the General Assembly will be in a position to deliver a criminal code that is tough, fair, and efficient.