Greenville red-light camera complaint rejected by N.C. Supreme Court

A street sign warns motorists about red-light camera enforcement. (Carolina Journal photo by Mitch Kokai)
  • The N.C. Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit challenging the Greenville red-light camera law as an unconstitutional local health act.
  • The state's highest court blocked a ruling against Greenville in a separate case arguing that the city fails to provide enough money for schools.

The N.C. Supreme Court will not take up a lawsuit that claimed Greenville’s red-light camera program was based on an unconstitutional local law dealing with health. The state’s highest court dismissed the appeal without comment this week.

Plaintiff Mary Sue Vaitovas had filed paperwork in April challenging the N.C. Court of Appeals’ unanimous ruling against her.

Before addressing the Vaitovas case, the state Supreme Court already agreed in March to block a separate Appeals Court ruling against Greenville’s red-light program.

Vaitovas’ lawyers argued that she had raised a “substantial” constitutional question about the 2016 state law that permitted Greenville’s red-light program.

“The substantial constitutional question is whether N.C. Sess. Law 2016-64 unconstitutionally relates to health in violation of N.C. Const. Art. II, § 24(1)(a),” according to an April court filing.

Article II, Section 24(1)(a) of the state constitution bans the General Assembly from enacting local legislation “relating to health, sanitation, and the abatement of nuisances.”

“[T]his issue has significant public interest and affects legal principles of major significance to the jurisprudence of the state,” according to the appeal for Supreme Court review. “Respondents violated Vaitovas’ rights under the North Carolina Constitution by enforcing the local act against her and depriving her of her property.”

Vaitovas “argues S.L. 2016-64 is a local act relating to health because its proponents described it as ‘designed’ to ‘prevent injuries’ and ‘save lives,’” according to the document.

The Court of Appeals noted that Vaitovas’ original challenge focused only on a local act involving Greenville. It did not target underlying legislation permitting multiple local governments to enact red-light camera programs.

“By requiring Vaitovas to challenge both S.L. 2016-64 and N.C.G.S. § 160A-300.1, the Court of Appeals decision leaves a procedural pothole in our State’s jurisprudence,” wrote Vaitovas’ lawyers. “According to that court, simply challenging the particular application to Greenville (i.e., S.L. 2016-64) of N.C.G.S. § 160A-300.1 is no longer sufficient.”

“The lesson for a future plaintiff is clear: challenge the particular application and the general application, even if the more general statute (whether public or local) has not harmed the plaintiff. That lesson will expand the scope of constitutional challenges in North Carolina.”

While rejecting Vaitovas’ plea, the Supreme Court already has stepped into the debate over Greenville’s red-light cameras. On March 30, the court granted a temporary stay in a case that successfully challenged the program. In that case, Fearrington v. City of Greenville, the Appeals Court ruled the red-light program unconstitutional because of its funding scheme.

Appellate judges ruled that Greenville’s program did not provide enough money to Pitt County Schools. The Appeals Court said the Fines and Forfeitures Clause in Article IX, Section 7 of the state Constitution requires the schools to net at least 90% of proceeds of red-light camera citations. In Greenville’s case, schools get less than 72% of the proceeds.

Both Greenville and the Pitt County Schools asked the state Supreme Court for the temporary stay blocking the Appeals Court’s ruling.

The Apex-based Stam Law Firm represents plaintiffs in both cases. Attorney Paul “Skip” Stam is a member of the board of directors of the John Locke Foundation, which oversees Carolina Journal.