Opinion

That's against the law in North Carolina. Really.

A defendant in a Wake County courtroom in Raleigh appears before District Court Judge Margaret Eagles in 2017. North Carolina's laws can be obscure and confusing, says James Craven, who used to work as a defense lawyer in North Carolina.
A defendant in a Wake County courtroom in Raleigh appears before District Court Judge Margaret Eagles in 2017. North Carolina's laws can be obscure and confusing, says James Craven, who used to work as a defense lawyer in North Carolina.

Let’s see how well you know North Carolina law. Which of the following activities are illegal in North Carolina?

  1. Selling stalagmites.

  2. Releasing chicken in the town of Ahoskie.

  3. Selling hot dogs without a license.

  4. Sending an annoying text.

Did you guess all of them, because these quizzes are usually designed to make a point rather than test your knowledge? You’re right. Let’s not waste too much time debating the soundness of these laws here: stalagmite sales may offend some important environmental purpose; Ahoskie might be beset by careless livestock tenders or sordid chicken-rights activists; selling hot dogs perhaps requires some hidden expertise heretofore unknown; and the “cyberstalking” statute is a small but appreciated windfall for underpaid defense attorneys doing court-appointed work.

But you probably didn’t know about all of those laws before reading this column. If you weren’t aware of these particular offenses, you would at least be relieved to know that you could easily find them in North Carolina’s Criminal Code. Yet you can’t. Even if you keep a leather-bound copy of the N.C. General Statutes, Chapter 14: Criminal Law by your bedside, you could still fail the quiz.

That’s because only two of the above crimes are actually contained in the criminal law section of the N.C. General Statutes: selling stalagmites (G.S. 14-159.22 “Sale of Speleothems”) and annoying texts (G.S. 14-196.3 “Cyberstalking”). Unlicensed hot dog transactions are found in the Public Health chapter (G.S. 130A-248). As for the Ahoskie prohibition on the emancipation of domestic fowl, it’s not in the N.C. General Statutes at all: you’ll find it in the Ahoskie Code of Ordinances (Sec. 10-9).

You don’t need to go to law school to know that a big reason governments punish crimes is to dissuade people from committing them. Academics call this deterrence: using the fear of punishment to keep would-be criminals within the confines of the law. But deterrence doesn’t work if people don’t know what the law is. As it stands, it’s hard for citizens to know exactly where the state has drawn the lines between right and wrong.

The chill is worse for businesses, which face criminal penalties for breaking obscure regulatory laws that are difficult to track down. Planning on joining Asheville’s healing stone industry? Unless you’re willing to pore through a few hundred legal volumes, you might want to hire an attorney to confirm you aren’t peddling any contraband cobblestone first. The labyrinthine organization of criminal conduct leaves many business owners blindsided by regulatory offenses they never knew existed.

We’re well past the point where all of what North Carolina considers a crime falls under the doctrine of common sense. That’s why we need to be able to look up these laws ourselves, preferably without the assistance of legal counsel. Scouring the myriad volumes of the N.C. General Statutes, administrative codes, local ordinances and more is simply unfeasible for the average human being.

Thankfully, a solution may be in the works. An informal group of academics, policy analysts and attorneys has been meeting regularly with public officials to discuss the problem and find a fix. Members of the group are currently at work on a comprehensive index to North Carolina’s criminal laws. The index will illustrate how inaccessible and incomprehensible the system has become, while also highlighting the many places where it is redundant, inconsistent, and incomplete. The hope is that this will inspire the General Assembly to create a re-codification commission to reorganize our sprawling criminal laws under the umbrella of a unified, comprehensible, well-organized criminal code.

A similar effort was undertaken in Ohio just last year. Their work has been praised as a triumph of bipartisanship, with experts across the political spectrum analyzing over 4,000 pages to provide recommendations for reform. As arduous as it may sound, re-codification is both attainable and commendable.

With any luck, North Carolina will soon have its own re-codification commission to cure the chaos of the state's criminal laws. Maybe they’ll give one or two a second look while they’re at it.



James Craven is acting director of Criminal Justice Reform at Reason Foundation in Washington, D.C. Previously, Craven worked as a defense attorney doing court appointed work in North Carolina. He graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 2013.
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