An ancient maxim of the law is ignorantia juris non excusat, or ignorance of the law does not excuse. Put another way, it is presumed that the public knows the laws, and a defense of ignorance is typically not allowed. This principle is at the heart of the recent decision by the state supreme court in State v. Miller, ___ N.C. ___, (June 9, 2017).
A defendant charged in district court with the misdemeanor crime of driving while impaired cannot ascertain from the charging document whether he is subject to sentencing at Level A1 (the most serious level) or Level 5 (the least serious). That’s because the aggravating factors that lead to elevated sentencing aren’t considered elements of the offense and thus are not required to be alleged in the charging instrument. Yet because those factors can increase the maximum punishment a defendant may receive, they must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and, with the exception of prior convictions, be determined by a jury in superior court. And, for most charges of impaired driving prosecuted in superior court, the State must provide notice of its intent to seek aggravating factors. A case decided by the court of appeals last June, however, identifies an exception to this requirement for certain aggravating factors in driving while impaired prosecutions initiated in superior court.
Last week, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed a defendant’s conviction under G.S. 90-95(d1)(1)(c), which makes it unlawful to “[p]ossess a pseudoephedrine product if [a] person has a prior conviction for the possession or manufacture of methamphetamine.” The court ruled that the defendant’s “due process rights under the United States Constitution were violated by his conviction of a strict liability offense criminalizing otherwise innocuous and lawful behavior without providing him notice that a previously lawful act had been transformed into a felony for the subset of convicted felons to which he belonged.” In other words, the defendant’s apparent ignorance of the law excused his violation of it.
Last July, Jamie Markham provided this refresher on aggravating factors in structured sentencing cases in which he discussed, among other provisions, the requirement that the State provide a defendant with written notice of its intent to prove aggravating factors. A reader requested that we follow up by discussing the related notice provision in G.S. 20-179(a1). … Read more
Back in July the court of appeals decided State v. Hubbard, a probation revocation case that I mentioned in passing but never really discussed in depth. In Hubbard the defendant’s probation officer filed a violation report alleging that Mr. Hubbard violated probation by being “so drunk that he could hardly walk” during a curfew check. … Read more