A raft of new laws addressing crime and punishment take effect on Saturday, including a move widening a three-year-old North Carolina statute criminalizing cyberbullying to protect school employees.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina said the law may be the first of its kind in the country, and the organization said it will seek plaintiffs for a possible court challenge to change it, contending it threatens to chill students’ free speech rights. The law threatens criminal penalties on students who use a computer with “the intent to intimidate or torment a school employee” by engaging in the same nasty online behavior that already makes it illegal to target a minor.
As with children, it becomes illegal Saturday to target a school employee by:
• Building a fake online profile or website;
• Posting private, personal, or sexual information;
• Tampering with their online networks, data or accounts:
• Signing them up to a pornographic website, or:
• Making any statement, whether true or false, likely to provoke someone else to stalk or harass a school worker.
ACLU-NC Policy Director Sarah Preston said the organization opposed the 2009 cyberbullying law aimed at protecting children for the same reason it wants to challenge this year’s extension to school workers: it’s vague, gives prosecutors too much leeway, and aims to punish speech – however stupid – simply because it’s online.
“The reality is that I’m sure students have been complaining about their teachers for as long as there have been students and teachers. They’ve been writing it on bathrooms stalls or carving it into desks or whatever. Just because they post it online doesn’t make it suddenly any less protected,” Preston said Friday. “And since we treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, because they write something stupid on the Internet, they could actually face some jail time.”
Penalties could be as much as 60 days in jail or a $1,000 fine for those as young as 16, who are treated as adults under state law. The ACLU wants any student charged under the new law to contact its office so that it can mount a court challenge.
Groups representing teachers sought the new law to punish children who make false accusations against teachers. The law ultimately passed the Legislature with just one opposing vote.
Another law among 19 taking effect Saturday was sought for a decade.
It allows a judge to erase the nonviolent criminal records of adults able to demonstrate they have turned their life around. Bi-partisan supporters described the need for the change with anecdotes of people who could not get jobs for decades after felony convictions or were unable to qualify for public housing assistance because of their records.
County sheriffs backed the change after the standards were raised to require evidence of a blameless life for 15 years.
“The feeling of the sheriffs is that folks who have made a mistake at some time in the past and have clearly turned their life around should get some relief at some point. But, there ought to be a pretty high bar to get over in order to get that,” North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association executive vice president Eddie Caldwell said Friday.
The law allows misdemeanors and low-level felonies erased from criminal records for convicts who display “good moral character” that others will vouch for. The law also permits probation officers to conduct a background check, district attorneys to contact victims, and judges to throw out requests they feel don’t have merit.
The left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center estimates tens of thousands of people may be eligible to have their criminal records expunged out of 1.6 million North Carolinians with criminal records.
Another bipartisan law hails back to the aftermath of former state House Speaker Jim Black, who pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge in 2007. Black pleaded to taking thousands of dollars from chiropractors while pushing their agenda at the General Assembly. He also entered an Alford plea to state charges of bribery and obstruction of justice.
The law prohibits any elected official convicted of a felony related their conduct in office from receiving state pension benefits. The felonious official could reclaim money they put into the retirement system.
Other laws taking effect include:
• making it illegal to sell, surrender, or purchase a child. The mother of 5-year-old Shaniya Davis was accused of selling the girl as a prostitute in 2009 to pay a drug debt to the man accused of killing her. Antoinette Davis was charged with human trafficking in addition to first-degree murder and rape of a child.
• creating a state-level offense of terrorism, defined as violent acts designed to intimidate the population or a government.
• toughening penalties for people who lie to get jobless benefits or to raise the amount of a benefit.
• making a fifth misdemeanor larceny a felony crime for repeat thieves with at least four convictions.