Raleigh, N.C. — House lawmakers gave approval Monday to a proposal to require active, continuous jail time for anyone convicted of felony death by vehicle or boat while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
The measure is meant to strengthen Sheyenne's Law from 2016, named for Sheyenne Marshall, a Cabarrus County teenager who was killed by a drunk boater on Lake Norman on July 4, 2015. At the time, the crime was only a misdemeanor. The 2016 law made it a felony.
Under the state's current structured sentencing law, a Class D felony like causing vehicular death while impaired carries a sentence of 38 to 58 months in prison. However, in the case of first-time offenders, judges have discretion to not impose jail time.
House Bill 65 would remove that discretion, requiring a judge in such a case to impose at least one-quarter of the maximum sentence – which would total 14 months – in continuous custody.
"If structured sentencing interferes with enacting justice, there’s a real problem with that, and maybe we need to change a few things on that," said sponsor Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus. "To let them off with no time served in jail is not justice."
Some of Pittman's fellow Republicans spoke against the mandatory sentencing.
"It’s a feel-good bill. It feels good to put someone behind bars and to dish out justice," said Rep, Larry Yarborough, R-Person. "I’m not sure that’s our job here. That’s what we have judges for."
Yarborough said mandatory sentences often cause unintended consequences.
"It sends a message as to our judges that we don’t trust them and that we haven’t learned anything about these issues," he said.
Rep. David Rogers, R-Rutherford, agreed, noting that the law would make no exception for "your 16-year-old daughter or 80-year-old father" who might suffer an unexpected reaction to a prescribed medication while behind the wheel.
"We’re taking the structure out of structured sentencing," Rogers, an attorney, warned.
But co-sponsor Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, argued that a jury would be unlikely to convict someone who had a legitimate medical emergency. He added that lawmakers wrote the structured sentencing law and can make changes to it as needed.
"The bottom line is, if you kill somebody, there’s a penalty to be paid," Speciale told the House. "We’ve got to stop feeling sorry for everybody and start holding people accountable for their actions."
The measure passed with bipartisan support, 84-32. It now goes to the Senate.