How Politics Influences Criminal Law

Here is an example of how politics influences the crime level, whether or not an activity is legal or not.

Blueprints

N.C. legislation that makes vandalism a felony becomes law

Triangle Business Journal – by Sonia L. Johnson

Dathan Kaszuk
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby says some cases of vandalism “cried for” tougher punishment.

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RALEIGH – To combat the many acts of vandalism reported every year, the state’s construction industry has pushed through legislation that could put offenders behind bars for as long as 12 months.

A bill signed by Gov. Mike Easley that goes into effect on Dec. 31 elevates acts of vandalism that result in more than $5,000 in damages to class 1 felonies. Previously, such acts were classified as misdemeanors.

For many in the construction industry, the change could not come soon enough. Counties are reporting thousands of cases of vandalism, and some of these crimes are said to occur at construction sites.

In Wake County, not including incorporated areas such as Raleigh, the number of cases of vandalism in 2006 and 2007 was 1,838, of which arrests were made in 219 cases, according to the Wake County Sheriff’s Office.

This year, as of Aug. 22, the county reported 547 cases with 60 arrests. Of the 547 cases, 23 occurred at construction sites.

Statewide, in 2007, the number of arrests tied to vandalism dropped to 9,876, compared to 10,882 arrests reported in the previous year.

Vandals are said to specifically target remote or less-frequented places such as subdivisions under construction, country churches and schools that are closed for summer vacations.

CASE OF A MARINE

Leading the charge for tougher punishment was state Rep. Robert Grady, a Republican from Onslow County who sponsored House Bill 946. Grady points to the case of a young couple in Onslow County who bought their first home in a new neighborhood. The husband – a Marine – was readying to leave for Iraq. The couple and furniture arrived at the home, ready to move in before he left. The man unlocked the door to find that vandals had left a trail of destruction. They had hammered every appliance and metal fixture once, expertly, aiming to ruin each piece. Every countertop and toilet was broken. The faucets on both floors were opened, and the house was flooded. The second story floor had collapsed from the weight of the water. The wiring was ruined. Damage to the house totaled $25,000 – too much money for a couple who had already sunk their savings into their home.

According to Grady, the builder took pity on the couple and let them have another house, saddling himself with the damaged home. But there was more bad news. Four other unsold homes in the neighborhood had also been systematically vandalized. The total bill for damages handed to the builder totaled $125,000.

Grady says that while the vandals were later caught, there was no justice for the victims because the crime was classified as a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and 30 days community service.

“The fellows that did it were sitting there laughing,” says Grady.

Grady was so upset over the story, over the pictures of the damage, that he led the effort to harden punishment for the crime. At legislative meetings, he held up pictures of the damaged home and the traumatized home owners. Both the Carolinas Associated General Contractors and the North Carolina Home Builders Association supported the legislation.

WANTON DESTRUCTION

After passing both chambers, the legislation was signed into law by Gov. Easley on June 25.

The aim of the legislation is to raise the stakes for the worst offenders, says Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby. “There were some cases that cried for more than a class 2 misdemeanor, with extensive damage and people bent on mischief, not just some kids … but on wanton destruction.” Grady says vandals are aware of the current, light punishment – in fact, they count on it.

He says the crimes are premeditated and that vandals choose properties with lower odds of getting caught. They also go in with a plan of destruction and often bring tools – hammers, paint etc. After a house has been vandalized, the builder has no choice but to replace broken mirrors, toilets and cracked countertops. One dent in a fixture warrants its replacement.

“It’s just pure destruction, and it’s a conscious act, full of hate and anger,” says Grady. “They might be sick, but they’re not crazy. They’re coldly rational and go in with a well thought-out plan of destruction.”

Says Carolinas AGC’s Building Director Dave Simpson: “(The legislation) couldn’t come at a better time because people are getting desperate, especially with the economy the way it is. It sends a strong message to the public that if you’re going to vandalize churches, schools and construction projects, you better think twice.”

But how much good can the law do? For that matter, how will vandals learn about the tougher punishment?

Willoughby says that because the punishment for vandalism is commonly known among such offenders, word will spread.

For its part, the NCHBA has signs ready for members to post at construction sites.

SECOND VICTORY

Conviction under a class I felony results at a minimum in community punishment. This includes some combination of fines, basic probation and community service. If the vandal has a prior record, the judge could raise it to intermediate punishment, which places the offender under supervised probation plus some other special condition such as house arrest or a sentence of 30 to 60 days followed by probation. The hardened repeater, Willoughby says, faces an active sentence of 6 to 12 months in jail.

Willoughby also points out that, once convicted of a felony, a person forfeits the ability to obtain certain licenses.

Raising the crime to a felony also gives prosecutors extra leverage, he says, and allows prosecutors to justify putting resources toward such cases.

This is the second major victory for the construction industry in fighting crimes. In 2005, builders welcomed a state law that tightened punishment for construction site thefts. The NCHBA had solicited horror stories from members, and those flooded in. That only left a gap around vandalism cases, according to Lisa Martin, director of regulatory affairs for the NCHBA. The association hoped legislators would be sympathetic to issues of vandalism at construction sites, sensitized as they were by the stories of construction site thefts. Passage of the vandalism law suggests that may be the case.

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Filed under crime and justice, Criminal Investigations, Laws, Professional Investigations, Theft Investigations

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