Last October, DRCNet reported on a pair of rulings by the North Carolina Court of Appeals that cocaine possession was a misdemeanor under state law, not a felony (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/313/misdemeanor.shtml). One section of state law classified cocaine possession as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to five years in prison, while another section of state law read that a felony is any crime punishable by time in state prison.
The rulings came in the cases of Norman Wayne Jones and Corey Sneed-El, both of whom had been convicted of felony cocaine possession and both of whom were subjected to enhanced sentences as habitual offenders under the state's sentencing guidelines.
The two courts held that language of the law was plain: simple possession was a misdemeanor. "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 in the second case, written by Judge James Wynn.
On June 23, the state Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals decisions, holding that the state's General Assembly really meant for cocaine possession to be a felony charge and that such convictions can be considered when determining habitual felon status.
"I'm pleased that the North Carolina Supreme Court recognizes that possession of cocaine should remain a felony," said state Attorney General Roy Cooper in a prepared statement. "This ruling is critical to our fight against drugs and crime because it allows for longer sentences and gives prosecutors the opportunity to use cocaine possession charges to keep habitual felons off the street."
Sneed-El's attorney, Daniel Shatz, professed disappointment, saying the state law was clear that cocaine possession was a misdemeanor. The state's sentencing structure is a wreck, he told the Charlotte News & Observer. "It really needs some overhauling," Shatz said. "What you get is essentially a lot of people who are drug addicts or have substance abuse problems who are being warehoused in the prison system instead of getting treatment."
North Carolina drug warriors may have dodged a bullet with this ruling, but as a sentencing guidelines state, in the wake of last week's US Supreme Court Blakely ruling (see article in this issue), North Carolina is now facing a howitzer shell coming straight at it.
To read the North Carolina
Supreme Court decision online (temporarily unavailable until July 2), visit: