The end of the road for criminal ordinances?

What do off-leash dogs, screeching tires, and begging have in common? All three can earn you a criminal record in North Carolina.

Last month, Professor Jessica Smith (UNC School of Government) shared a number of wonderful insights into the prosecution of ordinance violations in North Carolina in a blog post entitled “Overcriminalization & Ordinance Violations as Crimes.” For anyone unaware, G.S. 14-4(a) makes the violation of most local ordinances a Class 3 misdemeanor. A Class 3 misdemeanor conviction means a criminal record. A criminal record likely means a fine and some potentially steep collateral consequences—diminished job and housing prospects, loss of public benefits or financial aid, etc.

The default criminalization of most ordinance violations raises a number of red flags. For instance, many ordinances prohibit relatively benign behavior. A barking dog may be annoying, but slapping the owner with a criminal record seems a bit excessive.

Making matters worse? Some local governments don’t seem to be aware of G.S. 14-4(a). After the General Assembly passed a bill last year requiring local governments and agencies to provide a list of crimes created through ordinances or rules, multiple local bodies responded that they have not created any crimes by ordinance. Sadly, a quick search of their ordinances proves otherwise.

This means crimes are being created by accident—a fact that surely offers no comfort to the person carrying around a criminal record for begging or violating local leash laws.

The good news is that the General Assembly appears ready to act on this issue. Senate Bill 584, a bill geared toward some much-needed criminal law reforms, would put an end to the criminalization of new ordinances, among other things.

This is the right move for North Carolina. Our criminal code is sprawling, ineffective, and unfair. Ending the default criminalization of local ordinances is a necessary step toward creating an effective, efficient, and fair criminal justice system in our state.

Mike Schietzelt / Legal Fellow

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