Town Board Decriminalizes Town Ordinance, Not Crimes
On September 2, 2021, Governor Cooper signed several criminal reform bills into law. Among those new laws is one entitled “Decriminalization of Certain Ordinances.” The bipartisan legislation behind these changes passed 100-2 in the N.C. House, and unanimously in the N.C. Senate.
Currently, there is inconsistency between certain town ordinances that carry lesser misdemeanor criminal penalties and respective state laws, which provide for both misdemeanor and felony convictions with stronger penalties. Among other concerns, such inconsistency presents more opportunities for loopholes that allow offenders to avoid conviction. To be compliant with the new law, our Town Commissioners sought the recommendations of the Chief of Police and Town Attorney. Presentations on this proposal have been made at Town Board meetings on December 7 and January 11.
As a rule, Davidson police officers are encouraged always to charge a violation under the state law because it offers stronger penalties and, thereby, better protection and stiffer enforcement for town residents. Since Davidson’s ordinances are no longer used for these reasons, there is no need for the criminal penalties still on the Town’s ordinances because the Town’s officers use the state laws to charge crimes.
When asked at the meeting on January 11 why the ordinances should be amended if they are not going to be used, Chief Penny Dunn explained that the local ordinances were written during a time when municipalities were trying to restrict places where sex offenders could go, so they used very broad language. In Doe v. Cooper (4th Cir. 2016), a federal judge ruled that such broad language was “unconstitutionally vague.” If an arrest were to be made under the current ordinance, it would likely be thrown out because the language is too broad. State law, passed by a legislative body, is more easily enforceable and will replace the local code. A person arrested for a crime would not be charged with the lesser penalty, but an arresting officer would defer to the stricter state statute.
Simply put, the changes to the Town ordinances do not diminish protection but increase it, because state law is stronger than the local ordinances in obtaining convictions. Removing the town statutes allows the stricter state regulations to be enforced.
There were two public comments on the topic at Tuesday night’s Board Meeting – one opposed and one in favor of the proposal.
After citizen comments, an updated briefing from the Chief of Police and Town Attorney, and comments from all elected officials the Board voted to approve the amendment. The vote was unanimous.