A 79-year-old Ohio widow, Nancy Segula, made national news last week when a judge sentenced her to serve 10 days in jail for feeding her neighbor’s abandoned cats.
Although another judge later suspended that sentence, the case raises important questions about criminal ordinances. As one National Review article declared, “Jail should be reserved for criminals who actually infringe on another person’s rights.”
The case should also serve as a cautionary tale in North Carolina, where local ordinances criminalize all kinds of behavior ranging from wearing inappropriate beachwear to using Silly String. In fact, some North Carolina towns have also criminalized feeding stray animals. And those ordinances are not nearly as clear as the Garfield Heights, Ohio ordinance that ensnared Ms. Segula. The Garfield Heights ordinance violated by Ms. Segula is clear as day:
505.23 FEEDING OF STRAY DOGS AND CATS.
(a) No person shall provide food for cats and dogs other than those owned by that person by setting such food out on the exterior portion of the person’s home or residence.
(b) Whoever violates this section is guilty of a minor misdemeanor.
(Ord. 90-1991. Passed 7-8-91.)
Some might call this a silly crime. Maybe it is. But at worst, it is a clear silly crime: don’t set food outside your house for dogs and cats that are not yours. If you do, it’s a misdemeanor.
Now compare the Garfield Heights ordinance with Lillington, North Carolina’s ordinance 90.26:
90.26 POSSESSION OF ANIMALS AND STRAYS.
(A) It shall be unlawful for any person in the town knowingly and intentionally, unless with consent of the owner, to harbor, feed and keep in their possession by confinement or otherwise allow to remain on their property any animal which does not belong to them unless they notify the County Animal Control within 48 hours from the time such animal came into his or her possession.
(B) Any person who feeds a stray animal and/or allows the animal to stay on their property for at least two days will be considered the legally responsible for such animal and any violations caused by the animal.
(C) It shall be unlawful for any person to refuse to surrender any such stray animal to the Police Department or County Animal Control or person duly authorized upon demand.
(D) The purpose of this section is to aid in rabies control and to prevent the intentional or unintentional possession of pets belonging to other persons.
(Ord. passed 7-16-2013) Penalty, see § 90.99
It doesn’t take legal training to see a difference between the two ordinances. The former is narrow and simple. The latter is broad and confusing.
But wait. There’s more. The Lillington ordinance also fails to tell you the penalty for feeding stray animals. For that, it tells you to read section 90.99, which says:
Penalties and remedies shall be in accordance with the county animal control ordinance.
You read that right. The “PENALTY” section says to go read a different book.
So to recap, section 90.26 tells us what we cannot do (if you can translate the ordinance from Legalese to English). But to find the punishment, turn to section 90.99, which tells you the answer is in a completely different book published by a different government entity. To make things worse, section 90.99 doesn’t even tell you where that penalty is in the other book. (It is in Section XIV, by the way.) And when you find the penalty section in the other book, you likely won’t find much clarity because the ordinance allows any combination of criminal charges, civil penalties, and equitable remedies.
This labyrinthine ordinance is a microcosm of the criminal code in North Carolina. What should be a simple search for crimes and associated penalties often turns into an unamusing Choose Your Own Adventure game.
That is not how a criminal code should work. A conviction can have dramatic impacts long after the sentence is served. Accordingly, criminal laws should provide fair notice to everyone about what conduct is criminal and what is not. To provide fair notice, these laws should be written in a way that most people can understand.
At present, North Carolina’s criminal code is not exactly a shining example of clarity. But it could be. Senate Bill 584, which presently awaits Governor Cooper’s signature, would provide a trove of information about local crimes in North Carolina. And with that information, a recodification commission comprised of experts from the legislative, judicial, legal, and law enforcement communities could take up the task of rewriting the laws to make them clearer.
In short, recodification could position North Carolina as a model for criminal law reform. And that kind of attention is far better than making national headlines for jailing an older adult for feeding stray cats.