Newsbrief: North Carolina Appeals Court Rules Drug Possession a Misdemeanor, Not a Felony 11/28/03

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items


recent blog posts "In the Trenches" activist feed


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:

-- END --
Link to Drug War Facts
Please make a generous donation to support Drug War Chronicle in 2007!          

PERMISSION to reprint or redistribute any or all of the contents of Drug War Chronicle (formerly The Week Online with DRCNet is hereby granted. We ask that any use of these materials include proper credit and, where appropriate, a link to one or more of our web sites. If your publication customarily pays for publication, DRCNet requests checks payable to the organization. If your publication does not pay for materials, you are free to use the materials gratis. In all cases, we request notification for our records, including physical copies where material has appeared in print. Contact: the Drug Reform Coordination Network, P.O. Box 18402, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 293-8340 (voice), (202) 293-8344 (fax), e-mail [email protected]. Thank you.

Articles of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of the DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

Issue #313, 11/28/03 Editorial: The Presidential Turkeys | No Prison Time for Defendants in LA Cannabis Resource Center Case -- Judge Criticizes Prosecutors, DEA | Judge James Gray in Senate Bid -- Will Challenge Boxer, Call for End to Drug War | Newsbrief: Traffic Stop Not a License for Criminal Investigation, Illinois Supreme Court Says | Newsbrief: North Carolina Appeals Court Rules Drug Possession a Misdemeanor, Not a Felony | Newsbrief: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Questions School Drug Testing | Newsbrief: Kentucky Bill Would Let Families Commit Drug Users to Rehab | Newsbrief: US Denies Visa to Bolivian Coca Leader Evo Morales | Newsbrief: Life Without Parole for LSD Manufacture Conspiracy | Nearly One Out Of Three HIV Patients in Ontario Use Marijuana Medicinally, Study Says | DRCNet Temporarily Suspending Our Web-Based Write-to-Congress Service Due to Funding Shortfalls -- Your Help Can Bring It Back -- Keep Contacting Congress in the Meantime | | Perry Fund Accepting Applications for 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 School Years, Providing Scholarships for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions | | The Reformer's Calendar

This issue -- main page
This issue -- single-file printer version
Drug War Chronicle -- main page
Chronicle archives
Out from the Shadows HEA Drug Provision Drug War Chronicle Perry Fund DRCNet en EspaŮol Speakeasy Blogs About Us Home
Why Legalization? NJ Racial Profiling Archive Subscribe Donate DRCNet em PortuguÍs Latest News Drug Library Search
special friends links: SSDP - Flex Your Rights - IAL - Drug War Facts the Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCNet)
1623 Connecticut Ave., NW, 3rd Floor, Washington DC 20009 Phone (202) 293-8340 Fax (202) 293-8344 [email protected]