Greenville defends red-light camera program in appeal to N.C. Supreme Court

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  • "clear proceeds" must equal at least 90% of the money paid in fines.
  • In Greenville, the schools net about 72% of the fines.

Greenville defends its legally challenged red-light camera enforcement program in a new appeal filed with the N.C. Supreme Court. The city government wants the state’s highest court to reverse an earlier ruling against the program.

The state Supreme Court agreed on March 30 to block the N.C. Appeals Court’s ruling against the red-light camera program in Fearrington v. City of Greenville. That means Greenville can continue to operate the program as courts resolve the legal issues.

Greenville and the Pitt County Board of Education both worked in 2016 to secure local legislation from the General Assembly for a red-light camera enforcement program. “The RLCEP was designed to improve traffic safety within the City and to raise additional funds for public education in Pitt County,” according to the appeal filed by Greenville’s lawyers.

The resulting law, Session Law 2016-64, included the following provision: “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.”

Yet the Appeals Court ruled that the funding system violated Article IX, Section 7 of the N.C. Constitution. The Fines and Forfeitures Clause in that section directs that the “clear proceeds” of penalties like red-light camera citations must go to schools.

Previous legal guidance suggests that “clear proceeds” must equal at least 90% of the money paid in fines. In Greenville’s case, the schools net about 72% of the fines, appellate judges ruled.

Greenville’s appeal argues that Pitt County Schools get 100% of the red-light camera proceeds. Funding for the program’s operations results from a separate agreement specifically authorized by the legislature, the city contends.

“As a result of this arrangement, the Board of Education has received a significant amount of additional funding,” according to Greenville’s appeal. “The Board of Education has received almost $1.7 million from the RLCEP, monies that the Board of Education would not otherwise have available.”

“With the rise of increased threats to student safety, the Board of Education plans to spend this money on critical security upgrades it otherwise could not afford,” the appeal continued. “The RLCEP proceeds allow the Board of Education to take the concrete steps it needs to ensure the safety and well-being of its district’s children during the school day, or to address other needs as deemed appropriate by the Board of Education.”

The Appeals Court rejected Greenville’s arguments about the funding system when it issued its March 15 opinion.

“Because Greenville collects all of its RLCEP expenses from the School Board after forwarding the fines to the School Board, Defendants argue that the funding agreement is constitutionally adequate,” Judge Jefferson Griffin wrote. “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 Forfeitures Clause.”

“The School Board does not receive the ‘clear’ proceeds of fines in any real sense when Greenville forwards the fines to the School Board and subsequently takes 30% of the money back for costs which are not deductible to begin with,” Griffin added.

The Appeals Court ruling against Greenville’s red-light program was unanimous. The state Supreme Court faces no obligation to take the case. Greenville is asking the high court either to address a “substantial constitutional question” or to grant the case a discretionary review.

The Supreme Court faces a separate request to review another lawsuit challenging Greenville’s red-light program. In Vaitovas v. City of Greenville, a plaintiff argues that the law permitting Greenville’s red-light camera program is unconstitutional because it’s a piece of local legislation designed to address public health.

Both a trial judge and a unanimous Appeals Court panel ruled in favor of the city in the Vaitovas case.