North Carolina statute gives law enforcement officers certain powers to direct civilians. In some situations, when a person does not listen to an officer’s commands, they may end up in handcuffs and facing accusations of “willful failure to obey law enforcement.”

A handful of individuals have been accused of this in connection with recent, large-scale demonstrations in Charlotte. A law enforcement officer could cite this statute in a variety of situations, however. But how serious is this type of allegation? Here is an overview.

Law enforcement officers do not have free reign

North Carolina is one of nine states that requires civilians to follow police or law enforcement orders, but only in relation to a specific capacity. Here, this power is tied specifically to traffic control measures. (So orders during a demonstration in the streets, for example, may fall under traffic control directives.) In this way, the scope is somewhat constrained.

In addition, North Carolina specifies that refusal to obey a law enforcement officer’s order must be “willful” in order to be criminal. A previous state court of appeals ruling determined that an individual arrested by a plainclothes, off-duty officer may not reasonably know that the person issuing commands is a member of law enforcement. Essentially, the arrested individual could challenge they were “willful” in their disobedience, because the officer was not identifiable as law enforcement.

Penalties for willful disobedience

Willful failure to obey a law enforcement officer is a Class 2 misdemeanor. That might sound like it is not a big deal, but the repercussions can quickly escalate in certain situations.

An individual with no prior convictions may face up to 30 days in jail, though is likely to receive community punishment instead. Someone with one to four prior convictions could spend up to 45 days in jail, with an intermediate punishment also considered. With five or more convictions, a person’s jail time could reach 60 days, with an active punishment also authorized.

A week away from normal life – your family responsibilities, your job, your health needs – is difficult enough. Extend that to a month or more and this misdemeanor quickly becomes a significant, damaging disruption, particularly if the arrest or claims are erroneous. Mounting a strong legal defense can help life remain on track, while ensuring anything that does occur is fair and just.