State v. Waterfield, 274 N.C. App. 135 (Oct. 20, 2020)

The defendant, a fisherman, was charged with violating marine fisheries regulations after he left gill nets and crab pots unattended for too long. The officer that cited Defendant for these violations used a form citation indicating that the Defendant was being charged with committing these regulatory violations “unlawfully and willfully.” The defendant was convicted by a jury of the unattended gill net offense in superior court. (1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court committed plain error by failing to instruct the jury that the State must prove that his violation was willful, contending that the offense was not a strict liability offense. The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that G.S. 113-135(a), the statute that criminalizes the conduct at issue, did not establish a mens rea for the offense. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the General Assembly did not authorize the creation of strict liability regulatory offenses. In light of the language of the statutes governing these “public welfare” offenses, their relatively minor punishment, and the logistical difficulty of investigating the willfulness of every such violation, the Court held that they are strict liability offenses that do not require the State to prove intent. (2) The Court also held that the trial court did not err in failing to instruct the jury on willfulness, despite the language in the charging instrument alleging that the defendant acted “willfully.” That language went beyond the elements of the offense and was properly disregarded as surplusage.