State v. Miller, 369 N.C. 658 (Jun. 9, 2017)

Reversing a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, State v. Miller, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___, 783 S.E.2d 512 (2016), the court rejected the defendant’s as-applied challenge to the constitutionality of G.S. 90-95(d1)(1)(c) (felony to possess a pseudoephedrine product when the defendant has a prior conviction for possession or manufacture of methamphetamine). After holding that the General Assembly intended the statute to be a strict liability offense, the Court of Appeals had gone on to hold that the statute was unconstitutional “as applied to a defendant in the absence of notice to the subset of convicted felons whose otherwise lawful conduct is criminalized thereby or proof beyond a reasonable doubt by the State that a particular defendant was aware that his possession of a pseudoephedrine product was prohibited by law.” The Supreme Court began by noting that, as a general rule, ignorance of the law or a mistake of law is no defense to a criminal prosecution. In Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225 (1957), however, the United States Supreme Court sustained and as applied challenge to a municipal ordinance making it unlawful for any individual who had been convicted of a felony to remain in Los Angeles for more than five days without registering with the Chief of Police. In that case the defendant had no actual knowledge of the registration requirement and the ordinance did not require proof of willfulness. The issue presented was whether the registration act violated due process when applied to a person who has no actual knowledge of the duty to register, and where no showing is made of the probability of such knowledge. Acknowledging the rule that ignorance of the law is no excuse, the U.S. Supreme Court pointed out that due process conditions the exercise of governmental authority on the existence of proper notice where a person, wholly passive and unaware of any criminal wrongdoing, is charged with criminal conduct. Because the ordinance at issue in Lambert did not condition guilt on “any activity” and there were no surrounding circumstances which would have moved a person to inquire regarding registration, actual knowledge of the duty to register or proof of the probability of such knowledge and subsequent failure to comply were necessary before a conviction under the ordinance could stand consistent with due process. Lambert thus carves out a narrow exception to the general rule that ignorance of the law is no excuse. The subsequent Bryant decision from this court establishes that if the defendant’s conduct is not “wholly passive,” because it arises either from the commission of an act or failure to act under circumstances that reasonably could alert the defendant to the likelihood that inaction would subject him or her to criminal liability, Lambert does not apply. Turning to the facts of the case, the court noted that the defendant actively procured the pseudoephedrine product at issue. Moreover, the defendant never argued that he was ignorant of the fact that he possessed a pseudoephedrine product or that he had previously been convicted of methamphetamine possession. His conduct thus differs from that at issue in Lambert and in this court’s Bryant decision in that it was not a “wholly passive” failure to act. The court found no need to determine whether the surrounding circumstances should have put the defendant on notice that he needed to make inquiry into his ability to lawfully purchase products containing pseudoephedrine and that his as applied challenge failed. And it went on to conclude that the issue of whether the statute was a strict liability offense was not properly before it.