Who Is a Minor in North Carolina?

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Various criminal law provisions use the word “minor.” What is a minor?

The question comes up in different contexts. Elements of certain crimes. Sex offender registration and satellite-based monitoring. Probation conditions that prohibit residing with a minor. Confusingly, the age of “majority” does not usually match up with the age of juvenile jurisdiction or the “age of consent” for various statutory sex crimes.

The general definition of a minor in North Carolina comes from G.S. 48A-2: “A minor is any person who has not reached the age of 18 years.” In the absence of a more specific definition in a particular statutory context, that’s likely the rule—a person age 17 and under is a minor.

Sometimes a criminal statute does have a specific definition of minor. For example, G.S. 14-190.13(3) defines “minor” for specified obscenity and sexual exploitation crimes as “[a]n individual who is less than 18 years old and is not married or judicially emancipated.” (My colleague Sara DePasquale wrote about judicial emancipation here.) Same for G.S. 14-43.10(4) (human trafficking, which also governs involuntary servitude, sexual servitude, and sale of a minor), G.S. 14-203(2) (prostitution), and G.S. 14-269.7(c)(2) (handgun prohibitions for minors).

Some statutes use the word minor without further definition, but the context indicates they are actually referring to subclass of young people. For instance, G.S. 14-50.18 on soliciting a minor to participate in gang activity actually refers to the encouragement, solicitation, or coercion of persons under 16 years of age to participate in criminal gang activity. Subsection (c) then refers to “the minor” more generally, but it is clearly referring back to the persons under 16 described in subsection (a).

Other statutes avoid the word minor altogether and instead spell out a specific threshold for the age of the relevant victim. For example, indecent exposure is a felony in certain circumstances when the defendant is at least 18 and the victim is less than 16. Statutory rape and sexual offense statutes set specific age thresholds, avoiding any ambiguous reference to “minor.” And though often referred to as “indecent liberties with a minor,” the proper name of that crime is indecent liberties with a child. In fact the statute never uses the word minor, instead defining the victim as “any child of either sex under the age of 16 years.” G.S. 14-202.1.

The kidnapping and abduction crimes in Article 10 of Chapter 14 present a particularly confusing illustration of these issues. Kidnapping (G.S. 14-39) and felonious restraint (G.S. 14-43.3) reference age 16 as the threshold at which consent of the victim’s parent or guardian matters as an element of the offense, while enticing minors (G.S. 14-40) and abduction of children (G.S. 14-41) refer to minors generally, presumably meaning anyone under 18.

The plot thickens from there. Kidnapping, abduction of children, and felonious restraint are defined as “offenses against a minor” for reportability purposes, meaning they require sex offender registration when the victim is a minor and the defendant is not the minor’s parent. G.S. 14-208.6(1m). Minor is undefined in that context, meaning we almost certainly fall back to the background rule of under 18. That is the rule under relevant federal law, which defines “minor” for purposes of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) as “an individual who has not attained the age of 18 years.” 42 U.S.C. § 16911(14). Of course we know North Carolina isn’t SORNA compliant (we are, as a lawyer friend and I sometimes say, “sorta” compliant), but I assume our legislature intended the same age to apply in North Carolina. Whatever the relevant facts may be, the court of appeals has said a trial court is not limited to the elements of the conviction offense in finding them. State v. Arrington, 226 N.C. App. 311 (2013) (discussed here).

Speaking of sex offenders, additional restrictions apply to defendants whose crime involved the physical, mental, or sexual abuse of a minor. The person may be ordered to enroll in satellite-based monitoring if the court finds that he or she requires the highest possible level of supervision and monitoring, G.S. 14-208.40A, and may be subject to a probation condition barring residence with a minor, G.S. 15A-1343(b2)(4) (not reside with any minor child if the offense involved sexual abuse of a minor); -1343(b2)(5) (not reside in a household with any minor child if the offense involved physical or mental abuse of a minor, unless the court finds it unlikely that abusive conduct will recur and that it would be in the minor’s best interest to reside with the probationer). Again, minor is not statutorily defined in either context, likely leaving us with Chapter 48A’s under-18 rule as the gap-filler.

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