Our Opinion: State lawbooks need pruning, not fertilizing

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After blitzing through the state budget, North Carolina lawmakers have nearly a month of free time before an expected short session adjournment around Independence Day. We shudder at the thought.

Idle hands, after all, are the devil's workshop, and there's no telling what kind of half-baked bills may surface in today's hyper-partisan climate, with recalcitrant Republicans and defiant Democrats all seeking Brownie points ahead of November's legislative elections.

Consider this modest proposal: Instead of adding pages to the Tar Heel State's voluminous lawbooks, our elected representatives should be subtracting.

University of North Carolina School of Government professor Jessica Smith, author of the thousand-plus-page scholarly compendium "North Carolina Crimes," says it's time for the General Assembly to clean up its tangled mess of a criminal code.

"There's no central database for collecting criminal ordinances," Smith told the John Locke Foundation think tank's Carolina Journal newspaper for its May edition. "It's impossible to say how many things we've made criminal in North Carolina."

The N.C. General Statutes are bloated with bad laws - some are redundant, others are plainly unconstitutional and a few are overly specific, evidencing favorable treatment given to special interests.

For an example of the latter, consider the laws on larceny, or common theft. Swiping most personal property valued at less than $1,000 is a Class 1 misdemeanor. But larceny of pine straw is a more serious matter. Steal so much as a handful of spindly brown pine needles where a posted sign warns against it and you could face a Class H felony.

This distinction, we're sure, was a carve-out for the state's forestry industry. We realize pine straw is commonly sold as decorative garden filler, but for every homeowner who buys it by the bagful, another rakes it up with dead leaves and considers it compost. Should taxpayers really foot the bill to imprison people for pilfering pine straw instead of assessing them a fine? 

Other statutes provide specific charges for stealing dairy crates and motor fuel. If plain old misdemeanor larceny is good enough to prosecute the theft of books, movies and garden implements, we see no reason why it can't also apply to the milk crates in which we store them.

In 2015, the General Assembly finally got around to repealing a law that banned the use of profanity on public roads or highways - more than three years after a judge struck it down as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. Yet a close cousin of that code banning the use of "any words or language of a profane, vulgar, lewd, lascivious or indecent character, nature or connotation" on the telephone remains in force.

First adopted in 1913, the phone profanity law is laughably unconstitutional. Yet so long as it's on the books, police can still arrest you for breaking it, and you may incur attorney fees and court costs to have the unlawful charge thrown out.

Smith suggests a recodification process - rewriting North Carolina's criminal code from soup to nuts. By sheer necessity, that would greatly reduce the number of individual laws, benefiting both the state's judicial system and its residents.

"The law's complexity is costly to the state and results in wrongful convictions and acquittals, inconsistent application and lack of notice to residents," the Carolina Journal story explains.

No legal scholar, let alone an ordinary person, could commit our state's thicket of criminal laws to memory. When people don't know the law, they can't ever be certain their conduct is lawful. Confusion and fear take the place of confidence and freedom.

Legislators have a golden opportunity. Instead of passing new laws to weigh down the already sagging statute books, they should turn their efforts to consolidating the laws we already have, with an emphasis on repealing those that probably never should have existed in the first place.

Call it addition by subtraction. Since recodification would require a lengthy bill, the honorables can still take credit for passing something.