By Natalie Anderson
SALISBURY — To comply with a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill passed by lawmakers last year, the city is in the process of making changes to some ordinances and associated penalties.
The bipartisan Senate Bill 300 was signed into law in September and includes recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. It was also supported by the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association and includes a number of provisions aimed at improving policing and criminal justice across the state.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, City Attorney Graham Corriher presented amendments to a number of the city’s ordinances to comply with provisions of the new law, and a vote on revisions is anticipated at the Jan. 18 meeting.
Before the law, a violation of local ordinances was subject to criminal penalties, but now, violations subject to criminal penalties must be specified in the city code. Corriher is working to determine which of the city’s ordinances can be enforced with criminal penalties. Under state law, municipal bodies can only enact class 3 misdemeanors. S.B. 300 provides that certain violations cannot be subject to criminal penalties, such as land development regulation violations and tree regulation violations. Corriher said he’s not aware of the city criminally charging for such offenses anyway.
“It’s an effort to require council to go in and be intentional about looking at their ordinances and specifying which ones justify criminal penalties,” Corriher said. “And everything else is off limits, meaning that it’s just subject to civil penalties.”
Changes Corriher is recommending with the guidance of Salisbury Police Department are amendments to chapters 1, 15, 20, 22 and 23. In chapter 1, the revision is to provide a specification of criminal and civil penalties. To clarify, Corriher said an example of an ordinance subject to civil penalties includes a parking violation.
In Chapter 15, misdemeanors would continue to be charged for instances of vandalism, obstruction of and interfering with police, smoking on buses, discharging a firearm, public urination and loitering for the purpose of engaging in drug activity. Other ordinances in chapter 15, such as one related to abandoned appliances or displaying obscene material, would no longer be subject to criminal penalties.
In Chapter 20, misdemeanors would be applicable to offenses that violate protective measures put in place to protect juveniles under the age of 16, including a curfew.
Chapter 22 would maintain penalties for unlawful displays and possession of dangerous weapons and firearms. Chapter 23 allows misdemeanors for the refusal to pay taxi cab fares.
Among the law’s provisions is a limiting of municipal ordinances that criminalize poverty. Corriher said those who violate local ordinances can use circumstances of homelessness, mental health issues and/or substance abuse issues as a defense if charged criminally. The law also allows someone in violation to come into compliance and use the defense that he or she hasn’t been charged for another offense in a 30-day period.
The maximum penalty for the highest level of offense and multiple occurrences is 20 days in jail and a $50 fine, though the law allows that fee to max out at $500. Corriher said the city will keep a fine of $50.
He is also working to “clean up” some of the city’s ordinances that involve unenforceable measures adopted decades ago and no longer constitutional today. He removed ordinances in the city code that prohibit loitering at churches, schools, theaters and bus terminals. Additionally, he removed the ordinance related to prohibiting “panhandling” or “solicitation of alms.”
Mayor Karen Alexander said she has received calls from residents concerned with panhandling near Walmart and Chick-fil-A on Innes Street. Corriher clarified that “solicitation of alms” hasn’t been enforced because it’s a violation of First Amendment rights as written. While the city can regulate conduct and safety risks, it cannot regulate speech.
“You are allowed to ask for charitable donations or money,” Corriher said.
He added that the city and Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes often hear those concerns, and they’re not falling on deaf ears, but that the ordinance needs to be looked at and revised.
Corriher said ordinance revisions will be voted on at the next council meeting. Tuesday’s presentation was considered a “first pass” at ordinance amendments.
Councilman Anthony Smith asked if there will be a “lens” of equity applied while assessing and revising ordinances to ensure fair treatment among all groups of people. Corriher said the city is working to include a variety of stakeholders, including those who are involved with high-risk populations, to ensure ordinances are equitable and enforceable.
Alexander said revisions could also include the Human Relations Council’s input. Smith is a staff liaison for the HRC. Interim Manager Brian Hiatt said the city could ensure Human Relations Manager Anne Little is involved in such discussions.
The bill includes a number of other measures related to criminal justice. The legislation includes provisions to promote the recruitment of officers with diverse backgrounds and experiences, along with improved training. Before hiring, potential officers would undergo background checks for any past criminal activity and be screened for mental health issues. It requires early intervention mechanisms in place to identify and correct officers who use excessive force or participate in some other form of misconduct. The law creates a public certification, revocation and suspension database of law enforcement officers.
Additionally, independent investigations of police-involved shootings will be expanded. Those who are arrested would be required to make a first appearance in court within 72 hours.
The law also requires a variety of governmental agencies to investigate deaths that result from the use of force by law enforcement and deaths of those who are incarcerated.
The law also establishes a new felony for those who resist a law enforcement officer if the action results in injuries to the officer.
Smith said it’s important for the public to know the larger context of the legislation, which is part of a push across the county for criminal justice reform following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police officers in 2020. Smith said such legislation comes from the power of Americans protesting and utilizing their rights to bring about “a more equitable and just and free America.”
“It leads to things like this at the local level,” Smith said. “It leads things to change policy.”
S.B. 300 was nearly unanimously passed, with the exception of two Democrats in the state House. All of Rowan County’s lawmakers voted in support. Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican representing District 76, said the bill seeks to create more uniformity throughout state, city and county law enforcement agencies. However, it will affect each municipality to varying degrees, he added, depending on how much they may already be in compliance with what the legislation entails.
“Among its various provisions, it provided for better training, better oversight and additional protections for law enforcement officers and for uniformity in the decriminalization of certain ordinances,” Warren said. “For those reasons, and others, I supported and voted for the bill.”
Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.