OUR VIEW Our loony laws

A Daily Journal editorial

July 25, 2014

When pilfering pine needles can carry a higher penalty than driving away in a stolen car, it’s not hard to see that some of North Carolina’s criminal laws are out of whack.

Larceny of pine straw is a Class H felony. As for stealing a car — well, we don’t have a state statute specific to motor vehicle theft. It’s covered by the larceny law, and as with other personal property, the value determines the severity of the charge. Stealing a car worth less than $1,000 will earn you a Class 2 misdemeanor.

Richmond County prosecutors pointed out this head-scratcher during a Wednesday presentation to youths in the Rockingham Police Department’s Junior Police Academy. Assistant District Attorneys Chevonne Wallace and Kennedy Gates offered a six-question quiz, and we’re sure the answers took many participants by surprise.

The pine tree may be an official state symbol in the Old North State, but should we really be making felons out of folks who cart away a little landscaping filler? A convicted felon is barred from voting and from owning a gun. That’s a high price to pay for pine needles.

Communicating threats is a Class 1 misdemeanor, while simple assault ranks a level below in Class 2. This sends a message we sure hope is unintentional — if you’re determined to punch, kick or slap someone, you’ll be in less trouble if you do so without warning.

The law on threats applies when someone “willfully threatens to physically injure” another or “willfully threatens to damage the property of another.”

There’s no distinction between threatening to kill someone and vowing to vandalize your neighbor’s yard. Some threats are much more severe than others, so perhaps different kinds should carry different penalties.

Threats aren’t the only words police and prosecutors are watching. State statutes that punish people who use vulgar language remain stubbornly on North Carolina’s lawbooks despite widespread consensus that the codes run afoul of First Amendment free-speech protections.

Last December, Wilson police arrested a man under a 1913 law banning “indecent or profane language” on a public road or highway. Nearly two years prior, a Superior Court judge in Orange County declared the law unconstitutional, noting that the terms “indecent” and “profane” are too vague to be enforced.

A separate statute also enacted in 1913 and still on the books today prohibits phone conversations containing “any words or language of a profane, vulgar, lewd, lascivious or indecent character, nature or connotation.”

Cussing on the phone is a Class 2 misdemeanor, one grade more severe than using salty language on a road or highway. Not only do we have speech police, but our state thinks it’s worse to utter strong words from afar than to do so in person.

We wish people would be courteous and considerate, and we discourage folks from using coarse language where it’s unwelcome. But the First Amendment and its canons of case law make it clear that our state shouldn’t be putting people behind bars for saying a word that happens to offend someone else.

North Carolina’s lawbooks are overdue for an overhaul. Penalties that aren’t proportional should be revised to bring them closer in line with common sense. Laws that conflict with the Constitution need to be removed.

When state lawmakers return to Raleigh next year for the General Assembly’s 2015 regular session, they’d do well to closely examine the litany of laws we already have before they worry about passing any new ones.