Cooper signs Innocence Inquiry Commission, Pretrial Justice Act bills into law

By: - July 7, 2023 2:14 pm

Gov. Roy Cooper signed two bills into law Friday that could make it harder for people wrongly convicted of crimes to clear their name and allow people to be jailed for up to two days without having been convicted of anything.

Legislators passed House Bill 790 over concerns that it would make it more difficult to help innocent people convicted of crimes. The law makes changes to the three-judge panel that assesses innocence claims involving prosecutorial misconduct, requiring a more stringent standard of evidence that critics of the bill warned would “extraordinarily lengthen” the pre-hearing process, as well as the length of the hearing itself.

Supporters claimed the change was necessary because prosecutors wanted it and because it acts as a safeguard on the three-judge panel’s panel to set aside a jury’s conviction or a judge’s sentence.

Much of the bill deals with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which helps people wrongly convicted of crimes to clear their name. Its webpage states that 15 people — out of 3,373 claims — have been exonerated through the commission’s work.

There were more than 30,761 people in state prisons as of July 7.

Cooper also signed The Pretrial Integrity Act into law. Republicans unanimously supported it in both the House and Senate, but Democrats split over concerns regarding its constitutionality. The bill requires judges, not magistrates, to set conditions of release within 48 hours for people charged with certain crimes, or for people charged with another crime — regardless of how serious it is — while they’re out on pretrial release for another charge.

Critics pointed out that, under the bill, people could be held in jail for up to two days for getting charged with a nonviolent crime like trespassing, for which they might not be sentenced to time behind bars. That would mean people would be held in jail without having been convicted of anything, potentially threatening their housing and employment status.

Republicans, meanwhile, said the bill’s language says “up to 48 hours.” It is not a mandatory 48-hour hold.

Before it got to Cooper’s desk a Senate Democrat successfully amended the bill, carving out low-level traffic offenses so that if someone is arrested for, say, speeding or some other motor vehicle offense while they’re on pretrial release for another charge, they would not need to have their bail set by a judge and potentially sit in jail for two days.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.