The Three Strikes Law: Can a Minor Offense Lead to Life in Prison?
“Three strikes and you’re out,” typically refers to baseball, but this baseball rule formed the foundation of major federal and state legislation in 1994. Designed to punish repeat violent offenders, this law targets individuals who have been convicted of two “serious and violent” felonies, sentencing them to a minimum of 25 years in prison if they are convicted of a third felony. To help you better understand this law, both at the state and federal level, our criminal lawyers in Raleigh are sharing some insight into what you need to know about habitual offender laws.
North Carolina’s Three Strikes Law
Instead of it being called a “three strikes law,” North Carolina has “habitual felon” laws. While the name is different, the premise of the law is still the same, though it does not differentiate between violent and non-violent felony crimes. Basically, anyone deemed a repeat offender of felony crimes will receive significantly more severe punishment for subsequent convictions.
Defining Habitual Felons in North Carolina
The North Carolina General Statute, 14-7.1 defines habitual felons as,
“Any person who has been convicted of or pled guilty to three felony offenses in any federal court or state court in the United States or combination thereof is declared to be an habitual felon and may be charged as a status offender pursuant to this Article.”
Basically, this means that anyone with three felony convictions, regardless of where they were found guilty, is subject to this law if the offense is determined to meet all the following criteria:
- Any offense deemed a felony in NC
- Any offense deemed a felony in another state that is similar to a felony in NC and a conviction or guilty plea occurred.
- Any offense in another state that is not deemed a felony but is similar to a felony offense in NC, is punishable by more than a year in a state penitentiary,
- and the individual pled guilty or was convicted.
Understanding Felonies in North Carolina
In North Carolina, felonies are divided into classes, ranging from a Class A, which is the most serious, to a Class I, which is the least serious. Examples include:
- Class A: First degree murder
- Class B: First degree forcible rape or first degree forcible sexual offense
- Class C: Embezzlement (over $100,000)
- Class D: First degree burglary
- Class E: Selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school
- Class F: Assault inflicting serious bodily injury
- Class G: Identity theft
- Class H: Larceny worth more than $1,000
- Class I: Possession of fentanyl
Sentencing Habitual Felons in North Carolina
Unlike most states with three strikes laws, North Carolina’s punishment structure for those who are deemed habitual felons is very complicated and is often dependent on the specific charges against the defendant. However, the general rule in accordance with NCGS 14-7.6 states that the individual will be sentenced at a felony class level that is “four classes higher than the principal felony for which the person was convicted, but under no circumstances shall an habitual felon be sentenced at a level higher than a class C felony.”
In layman’s terms, this means that an individual who has three prior convictions of a felony will have their crime punished at a class of felony four levels higher than what they would normally be charged with if this was a first or second offense, up to a Class C felony.
For example, if an individual has three prior felonies and is convicted of identity theft, which is a Class G felony, they may be facing the penalty of a Class C felony. This could add several years onto a sentence.
Three Strikes Law in Federal Court
The three strikes law was enacted at the federal level in 1994 as part of the Anti-Violent Crime Initiative and is codified at 18 U.S.C. 3559. Designed to take violent offenders out of the community, this law states that a defendant is sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment if the they are convicted in federal court of a “serious violent felony” and have at least two prior convictions in either federal or state courts. Of the two previous convictions, at least one must be considered serious and violent, though one may be deemed a “serious drug offense.”
Eligible Offenses Under the Federal Three Strikes Provision
As we mentioned above, one prior felony must be considere a serious violent felony. This includes:
- Sexual Offenses
- Any offense punishable by a minimum of 10 years in prison and either includes the use of force or involves a significant risk of force.
For example, a previous conviction of armed robbery would serve as the basis of a strike, but unarmed robbery offenses without the use of a firearm, weapon, or any harm to another person, would not.
A serious drug offense may also be used as a strike, though this only includes distribution, manufacture, or possession with intent to distribute “significant quantities” of controlled substances.
Concerns About Three Strikes Laws
Many critics of three strikes laws argue that the harsh criminal sentencing structure is a violation of the Eight Amendment, which outlaws cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically targeted is California’s three strikes law, where a mandatory life sentence is required for persons convicted of any felony, not just violent crimes
While North Carolina’s habitual offenders laws do not elevate felony convictions to life sentences, they can elevate what is seen as a minor crime, such as the theft of a dog (Class I felony) and punish it as a Class E felony. This adds years onto a prison sentence.
The concerns related to North Carolina’s laws are currently focused on two specific problems.
- Those affected by these harsh sentencing guidelines are becoming older, leading to an elderly prison population that is expensive to maintain.
- Prison overcrowding, which is already a serious concern in the state.
Speak with a Defense Attorney in Raleigh 24/7
If you have been arrested or are under investigation for any crime and you are facing your “third strike,” whether it’s a minor offense or a felony, you need an experienced criminal lawyer in Raleigh to advocate on your behalf. In addition to representing clients in cases against the state, we are federal lawyers representing clients in the Eastern District of North Carolina. Reach out to us today at (919) 887-8040 or fill out the form below to schedule a free consultation with our experienced legal team.