Red-Light Camera Merry-Go-Round in North Carolina: NMA E-Newsletter #694

Red-light cameras have once again been declared unconstitutional in North Carolina. No one is surprised because this is the second time RLCs have been declared in violation of state law. Policing for profit, even if it is allegedly designed to benefit the school systems, always has a stench about it.

Case in point—the city of Greenville found a bypass around the state’s constitutional requirement that paid camera fines were to be routed to local schools. The city paid one-third of the cash to out-of-state vendor Verra Mobility (formerly American Traffic Solutions). Since 2016, Greenville has allowed Verra Mobility to operate all aspects of the ticket program in exchange for $31.85 out of every $100 fine.

In mid-March, the three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals unanimously struck down this funding scheme. Article IX, section 7 of the state constitution requires “the clear proceeds of all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected” go towards the public school system. The state Supreme Court interprets this to mean at least 90 percent of the revenue, not less than 72 percent after Verra Mobility and Greenville take their cuts. RLC fines generated close to $2.5 million in revenue between 2017 and 2019. Lawyers for the city of Greenville argued that its scheme was legal because 100 percent of the money first went to the school system, and then it would cut a check to the city to pay Verra Mobility.

Fifteen years ago, the NC Court of Appeals struck down the state’s red-light camera program in a decision upheld by the state Supreme Court. After learning there was no profit in red-light camera fines, seven North Carolina cities, including Greenville, immediately dropped their programs. By 2016, the state legislature began approving laws with funding schemes that bypassed the 2007 court decision. The resulting law for Greenville, Session Law 2016-64, included the following language:

“Any agreement entered into pursuant to this section may include provisions on cost-sharing and reimbursement that the Pitt County Board of Education and the City of Greenville freely and voluntarily agree to.”

Judge Jefferson Griffin wrote for the three-judge panel in the 2022 case entitled Fearrington v. City of Greenville:

“This argument asks us to not only frustrate the clear intent of the people in ratifying Article IX, Section 7, it also contravenes the plain language of the Fines and Forfeiture Clause, which provides that ‘the clear proceeds…shall belong to and remain the several counties, and shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for maintaining free and public schools.’ …The clear purpose of the people in mandating that the clear proceeds of such fines be ‘faithfully appropriated’ to the public schools cannot be circumvented by the elaborate diversion of funds or cleverly drafted contracts.”

Judge Griffin also wrote that the city’s program included other problematic features, including:

“Greenville invoices the School Board for the salary and benefits of a law enforcement officer and all fees invoiced to Greenville by ATS (Verra Mobility). This Court has previously held that the salary and benefits of law enforcement officers are enforcement costs and are thus not deductible from the clear proceeds.”

Within 15 days, the state Supreme Court issued a temporary stay preventing the enforcement of the Appellate Court’s ruling against operation of the ticket camera programs. Attorneys for Greenville and the Pitt County Board of Education sought the temporary stay while the Supreme Court considered their motion for a writ of supersedeas. Fearrington attorneys opposed the stay, which would have kept the RLCs operating and collecting fines while the defendants prepared their appeal, and argued that if the Court issued the writ, the city should either stop issuing citations or escrow a suitable amount of money to ensure that the school system receives 90 percent of the camera proceeds payable under the 2007 law.

In mid-April, the Pitt County School Board held a closed-door meeting to discuss the Greenville red-light camera program. No word yet on what was discussed.

At one point, North Carolina tried to take the policing-for-profit aspect out of red-light camera programs. Unfortunately, money provides a powerful incentive to find loopholes that exploit the public.

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