Excessive Sentencing Project - North Carolina

Policies and rulings on lengthy imprisonment terms in North Carolina.

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  • The state’s habitual felon act allows sentencing courts to lengthen the sentence of offenders convicted of three prior felonies, no matter how outdated.
  • Non-habitual offender sentencing follows a set of presumptive guidelines that may be aggravated or mitigated based on a number of designated statutory factors.
State Constitution

Art. 1, §27. Bail, fines, and punishments: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments be inflicted.

Sentencing Statutes

Habitual Felon statute: North Carolina allows for sentence enhancements for offenders convicted of multiple felonies. N.C.G.S.A. §14-7.6. Any person convicted of three felonies in any state or federal court may be sentenced under the state’s habitual felon statute. N.C.G.S.A. §14-7.1. Multiple felonies committed before an offender turns 18 will count as a single felony for calculation of habitual offender status. Id. Felonies committed in the same transaction count as a single felony for calculation of habitual offender status. Id. 

Life in prison without parole for second conviction if it involves felony conduct against a minor: State statute mandates life without parole sentences if an offender has committed more than one Class B1 or above felony, and the latest felony conviction is for conduct that involved a victim aged 13 or younger at the time of the offense. N.C.G.S.A. §15A-1340.16B.

Structured Sentencing Act: The state allows sentencing courts to depart from presumptive sentencing ranges if the jury finds the presence of aggravating or mitigating factors. N.C.G.S.A. §15A-1340.16(b). The presence of aggravating factors allows courts to sentence those convicted of B1 felonies to life without parole. N.C.G.S.A. §15A-1340.17.

Case Law

General  

Under the state’s habitual felon act, an offender may be subject to sentence enhancements no matter the level of severity of the prior felonies. State v. Clifton, 158 N.C.App. 88, 95-96 (2003). 

The state’s habitual felon act is not applied in a manner that violates the equal protection clause when a District Attorney in one county exercises his discretion to prosecute all eligible defendants as habitual offenders, while District Attorneys in other counties do not seek habitual offender status for all those eligible. State v. Parks, 146 N.C.App. 568, 571 (2001).

A sentencing court may impose a sentence more lenient than the minimum prescribed by the mitigated guideline range for drug trafficking sentences if it finds an offender has rendered substantial assistance. State v. Saunders, 131 N.C.App. 551, 552 (1998).

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Sentencing courts are not required to find aggravating factors when sentencing an offender to a term at the top of the presumptive range, when that term also falls at the bottom of the aggravated sentencing range. State v. Twitty, 710 S.E.2d 421, 430  (Ct.App. 2011).

Appealing the validity of prior convictions used to establish habitual felon status is an impermissible collateral attack; “being a habitual felon is a status, that once attained, is never lost.” State v. Creason, 123 N.C.App. 495, 500-501 (1996).

Prosecutors are not barred from using older felony convictions to establish habitual felon status, as the act does not place any temporal restrictions on qualifying convictions. State v. Hensley, 156 N.C.App. 634, 638 (2003) (upholding sentence enhanced by a felony committed 19 years prior).

Proportionality 

Sentences will be overturned for gross disproportionality in non-capital cases only “in exceedingly unusual” circumstances. State v. Clifton, 158 N.C.App. 88, 94 (2003). A reviewing court may consider an offender’s “history of felony recidivism” when evaluating whether a sentence is grossly disproportionate. Clifton, 158 N.C.App. at 96.

A sentence within the statutory guideline range does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. State v. Bruce, 268 N.C. 174, 184-85 (1966) State v. Robinson, 271 N.C. 448, 449 (1967).

When considering whether a sentence is so grossly disproportionate that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, the court places “great weight” on the seriousness of the offense. See State v. Ysaguine, 309 N.C. 780, 787 (1983).

Severe Sentences 

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Court upheld sentence of 32-40 years in prison for 16-year-old defendant convicted of molesting his younger half-brother. State v. Pettigrew, 204 N.C.App. 248, 259 (2010), appeal dismissed, 364 N.C. 439 (2010). 

Court upheld mandatory life sentence for 13-year-old convicted of sexual assault, attempted rape, and burglary. State v. Green, 348 N.C. 588, 612 (1998).

Court upheld sentence of 84-110 months for defendant convicted of cocaine possession and found to be a habitual felon. State v. Flemming, 171 N.C.App. 413, 416 (2005).