Greenville, Pitt County school board defend red-light cameras at NC Supreme Court

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  • Greenville and the Pitt County school board defended the city's red-light camera enforcement program in court filings Wednesday at the N.C. Supreme Court.
  • The high court agreed in April to hear Fearrington v. City of Greenville. In that case, a unanimous panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals threw out the red-light program as unconstitutional.
  • Greenville and the Pitt County school board continue to defend the program in court even after the city shut down red-light cameras in November 2022.

Greenville and the Pitt County school board urged the N.C. Supreme Court Wednesday to overturn a lower court ruling that threw out the city’s red-light camera enforcement program.

Greenville ended the program last November, eight months after the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled the program unconstitutional.

The state Supreme Court blocked the Appeals Court’s ruling shortly after it was issued in March 2022. But the high court waited roughly a year to respond to the city’s request to take up the case. The high court agreed in April to consider Fearrington v. City of Greenville.

A unanimous three-judge Appeals Court panel determined that Greenville failed to send enough proceeds from its red-light citations to Pitt County schools. Pitt schools netted about 72% of the proceeds. Appellate judges ruled that the schools’ share from the red-light camera enforcement program would need to top 90% to meet state constitutional standards.

“[W]e hold that the funding framework of the RLCEP violates the Fines and Forfeitures Clause contained in Article IX, Section 7 of our State Constitution,” wrote Judge Jefferson Griffin.

Greenville’s latest brief disputed the Appeals Court’s reasoning. “This holding was in error, as the panel misconstrued and improperly invalidated the City and the Board’s independent and legislatively authorized cost-sharing arrangement,” wrote the city’s lawyers.

State lawmakers endorsed the funding arrangement between Greenville and the Pitt school board, according to the city’s brief. “The Interlocal Agreement is also specifically authorized by the General Assembly through S.L 2016-64, which provides that the Interlocal Agreement ‘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 for the purpose of effectuating the provisions of G.S. 160A-300.1 and this Act.’”

The requirement that local schools receive “clear proceeds” from red-light citations doesn’t equate to a 90% share, Greenville’s lawyers argued. “The term ‘clear proceeds’ does not mean all monies collected from a civil penalty,” according to the brief. “Rather, it means net proceeds, that is, the proceeds left after the cost of collection are deducted.”

In a separate brief, the Pitt County Board of Education also defended the funding arrangement. Pitt school leaders rejected legal arguments from plaintiffs who challenge the red-light camera program.

“In every Article IX, Section 7 case this Court has decided before today, the injured party (i.e., the entity that ultimately is going to benefit from enforcing the Fines and Forfeitures Clause) is the public schools. But Plaintiffs seek to convert this protection instituted by the framers of our Constitution into a benefit for themselves,” the Pitt school board’s lawyers wrote.

“Their argument – that the Board may not voluntarily enter an inter-local agreement that increases revenue for the Board – would twist the meaning of the Fines and Forfeitures Clause from one that protects resources for schools into one that restricts the ability of local governments to increase school funds,” according to the brief. “And, as Plaintiffs further argue, if the local governments fail to comply with these restrictions on their ability to raise funds, the result is that the funds must be returned to those who paid them.”

“Nothing could be further from what the Fines and Forfeitures Clause plainly says or what the Framers of the North Carolina Constitution intended.”

Greenville is pursuing its case at the state Supreme Court despite the city council’s decision last fall to end red-light camera enforcement.

The council voted 5-1 on Nov. 7 to end the program, with plans to stop issuing red-light citations on Nov. 15 and to deactivate cameras at that time.

Critics of Greenville’s red-light program will have a chance to respond to the latest court filings. The state Supreme Court has not yet scheduled Fearrington v. City of Greenville for oral arguments.