Greenville urges N.C. Supreme Court to consider former red-light camera program

A street sign warns motorists about red-light camera enforcement. (Carolina Journal photo by Mitch Kokai)

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  • Greenville is urging the N.C. Supreme Court to consider a case challenging its red-light camera program. The city shut the program down last November.
  • Greenville cites a recent lawsuit challenging red-light cameras in Fayetteville as a good reason for the state's highest court to act.

Nearly two months after Greenville shut down its red-light camera program, the city continues to defend the program in court. Greenville filed paperwork Wednesday asking the N.C. Supreme Court to consider the issue.

A new motion urges the state’s highest court to review a March 2022 Appeals Court ruling against Greenville. Appellate judges ruled that the city had failed to send enough money from its red-light camera citations to public schools.

The Supreme Court later blocked the ruling, but justices did not respond to Greenville’s April 2022 petition to take up the case. Nine months later, Greenville is asking again for a hearing before the high court.

This time, Greenville cites continued legal action challenging red-light cameras in Fayetteville.

“Defendant asserts that additional support exists for its contention that the issues in this appeal are a matter of significant public interest,” wrote attorney Dan Hartzog, who represents Greenville as the defendant in Fearrington v. City of Greenville. “[T]he ongoing litigation in Allen v. City of Fayetteville … presents identical issues of law that require final resolution by this Court.”

“[I]f the Court of Appeals decision is left to stand, the result will be a severe limitation in the authority that the General Assembly has granted to municipalities and will negatively impact the ability of red light programs like the Red Light Camera Enforcement Program (“RLCEP”) to function and provide valuable resources to public school systems,” Hartzog wrote. “Programs like the RLCEP exist throughout the State, and there currently exist legal challenges to those programs that will be directly affected by the Court of Appeals decision, and by any further
decision by this Court.”

The legal dispute involves Article IX, Section 7 of the N.C. Constitution. It declares that the “clear proceeds” of fines, penalties, and forfeitures collected in N.C. counties must go to local schools.

“The ongoing litigation in Allen v. City of Fayetteville … presents a striking example of how the interpretation and application of Article IX, § 7 of the North Carolina Constitution (the “Fines and Forfeitures Clause”) to red light programs is an active and contentious issue in our State — and one that is ripe for final resolution by this Court,” Hartzog wrote.

Sabrina Allen filed suit on Nov. 16 in Cumberland County. She challenges Fayetteville’s red-light camera program as unconstitutional. Her complaint cites the March 2022 Appeals Court ruling against Greenville’s red-light program.

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

Greenville’s new court filing arrives at the 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.

Pitt County Schools netted about 72% of the proceeds of Greenville’s red-light camera program. The unanimous Appeals Court panel had ruled in the Fearrington case that the number 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.

State law offers guidance about the “clear proceeds” of fines and forfeitures, Griffin explained. “[T]he General Assembly has defined ‘clear proceeds’ as ‘the full amount of all penalties, forfeitures, or fines collected under authority conferred by the State, diminished only by the actual costs of collection, not to exceed ten percent (10%) of the amount collected.’”

That means “at a minimum, school boards must receive 90% of the total fines and fees collected” for a program to comply with state law and the state constitution, Griffin and his fellow appellate judges concluded.

Greenville and the Pitt County school system filed a joint brief with the N.C. Supreme Court. It rejected arguments against the red-light camera program.

“Specifically, Plaintiffs contend that the School Board is not keeping enough of the traffic fines collected,” according to the brief. “That is, Plaintiffs have sued the School Board for not receiving enough money — a claim that the School Board opposes because, ironically, the solution to this purported violation may be to shut down the red light camera program so that the School Board receives nothing.”

“In fact, according to Plaintiffs, the School Board and City should have to pay Plaintiffs (and the class they hope to represent) all of the fines previously collected by the City because the School Board did not receive enough of the fines.”

The city and school system also accused the Appeals Court of overlooking the General Assembly’s specific authorization of an interlocal agreement. The agreement allowed the red-light camera program to move forward.

The joint brief accused appellate judges of misinterpreting the state constitution. “The idea that the Fines and Forfeitures Clause can be used to take money away from a board of education runs directly contrary to the entire purpose of Article IX, Section 7, and the jurisprudence developed under that Clause.”

Once Greenville shut down its program, only Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Wilmington continued to operate red-light camera enforcement programs in North Carolina.