Legal Experts Say North Carolina Cohabitation Law Doesn't Apply Statewide

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Though a judge has ruled that North Carolina's 201-year-old law barring unmarried couples from living together is unconstitutional, it doesn't apply statewide, legal experts said.

State Superior Court Judge Benjamin Alford issued the ruling late Wednesday, finding the law violated a Pender County woman's constitutional rights.

But legal experts argue that the judge's ruling affects only those involved in the litigation. Law enforcement officers and district attorneys elsewhere in the state still could prosecute couples living together out of wedlock, they said.

"It's not until it gets up to the Court of Appeals that it applies statewide," said Dan Pollitt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued last year to overturn the rarely enforced law on behalf of Deborah Hobbs, 41, a former Pender County sheriff's dispatcher who said she had to quit her job because she wouldn't marry her live-in boyfriend.

Hobbs said her boss, Sheriff Carson Smith, told her to get married, move out or find another job after he found out she and her boyfriend had been living together for three years. The couple did not want to get married, so Hobbs quit in 2004.

A spokeswoman for North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who was named as a defendant, said last week that no decision had been made on whether to appeal.

The ACLU said that since 1997, there have been about 36 criminal cases in North Carolina stemming from the law, formally known as the fornication and adultery statute. It's unclear how many cases ended in convictions, the ACLU said.