by Becki Gray
Former Senior Vice President, John Locke Foundation
North Carolina’s criminal code is a mess. The sheer number of criminal laws and regulations are inaccessible and haphazardly organized so as to make it virtually impossible for regular citizens to know, understand and comply without breaking the law as they go about their everyday life, jobs and businesses. Citizens can, and are often subject to, or prosecuted and punished for, unintentionally breaking a law they did not even know existed.
Fixing the problem would entail a complete review of every criminal offense, evaluating each one, and reorganizing all crimes into the General Statutes in a way citizens would understand. It should be clear what’s a crime and subject to public condemnation with criminal penalties. Senate Bill 455, Decriminalize Non-Statutory Offenses, looking at local ordinances is a good start on a heavy lift. Using the criminal law to enforce local ordinances has harsh effects on citizens, especially the poor and homeless. It diverts scarce law enforcement resources from other, more important tasks, like fighting violent crime.
In addition to 2,500 crimes defined in North Carolina General Statutes Chapter 14, there are another 1,600 sprinkled here and there through 141 different chapters of NC Gen Statutes.
But it gets worse. There are also criminal offenses promulgated by counties, municipalities and metropolitan sewerage districts. But it gets even worse. Administrative agencies and occupational boards promulgate criminal offenses as well. These do not appear in the statute book at all but are scattered throughout ordinances and rules in hundreds of separate local codes and through thousands of pages of the NC Administrative Code as well.
Decriminalizing, evaluating and recodifying is a big step. Senate Bill 455 is a step in right direction. It would change a violation of a local ordinance from a Class 3 misdemeanor and a $500.00 fine to an infraction and no more than a $50.00 fine. Local governments could impose civil penalties rather than criminal penalties. ignorance of the law would not to be an excuse for crimes defined in specified chapters—which are the chapters in which one would expect crimes to be defined—but actual ignorance of the law would be an excuse for crimes that are defined elsewhere.