Twice this month the North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled that drug possession must be treated as a misdemeanor, not a felony, but those decisions are on hold pending a state Supreme Court review, and the legislature is scrambling to rewrite the state's muddied drug statutes. While the reflex response from legislators is to reinstate drug possession's felony status, some observers are suggesting that it could be an opportunity to revisit the entire scheme of drug sentencing in the Tarheel State.
If upheld, the rulings could have enormous consequences. Since the dawn of the crack era, tens of thousands of North Carolinians have been sentenced to prison as possession felons, and thousands more have been charged as habitual criminals or felons in possession of a firearm based on possession felonies. Those sentences and charges would have to be revisited if the state Supreme Court agrees with the appeals court.
In its first ruling on the issue earlier this month, the Court of Appeals threw out the conviction of Norman Jones, who had pled guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and who was subsequently convicted as a habitual offender. It cited conflicts in state law. Under North Carolina law, a felony is defined as any crime that is punishable by time in state prison. But a separate statute defines cocaine possession as a misdemeanor "punishable" as a felony by up to five years in prison.
That decision was greeted with howls of outrage and protest by North Carolina cops and prosecutors. The Attorney General's office filed papers with the state Supreme Court seeking a stay and arguing that any crime that is punished as a felony is a felony, regardless of legislative language. Thousands of current and prior cases could be appealed, the Attorney General's filing warned. The Supreme Court agreed to a stay pending the state's appeal.
But a week later, the Court of Appeals sent a clear signal the storm brewing over its decision had not caused a change a heart. On November 20, citing the same legislative conflict, the court overturned Corey Tyrone Sneed's conviction as a habitual felon and a felon in possession of a firearm, and threw out his eight-year prison sentence. "Since the General Assembly made this law, it is not within the province of this Court to employ legal gymnastics to read the clear language differently than what it states," said the unanimous opinion, written by Judge James Wynn.
For the state's largest newspaper, the Charlotte News & Observer, the imbroglio is a good opportunity to restore some sanity in drug sentencing. "Lawmakers may be tempted to affirm a felony label for the offense and let that be that," the paper observed in a November 21 editorial. "Yet some thought is called for, since possession as a felony can trigger much longer prison sentences -- for instance, in the form of habitual felon sanctions. The fairness of such sentences is debatable, at best... Communities need drug laws that deal harshly with cocaine dealers, and stiff penalties are reasonable for people arrested repeatedly for possession. But for possession to be classed as a felony, irrespective of the amount of the drug, seems excessive when it hasn't involved violence or dealing."
Only time will tell if the legislature will follow the high road suggested by the News & Observer, but for now, both the legality and the morality of North Carolina's harsh drug sentences are topics for debate.
To read the opinion in State
v. Sneed, visit:
To read the opinion in State
v. Jones, visit: