NCICL, ACLU back plaintiffs challenging Greenville red-light cameras

Red-light camera equipment (Carolina Journal photo by Mitch Kokai)

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  • The North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law backs plaintiffs challenging the funding arrangement of Greenville's now-dismantled red-light camera enforcement program.
  • A friend-of-the-court brief from NCICL urges the NC Supreme Court to uphold a unanimous 2022 ruling against Greenville from the NC Court of Appeals.
  • Appellate judges agreed that Greenville failed to deliver the "clear proceeds" from red-light camera citations to the Pitt County Schools.
  • Greenville and the school board are challenging the ruling. The state Supreme Court agreed to take the case in April.

The North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law and American Civil Liberties Union are supporting plaintiffs challenging Greenville’s now-dismantled red-light camera enforcement program. The state’s highest court has agreed to hear a case focusing on the amount of red-light camera citation proceeds heading to local schools.

The NC Court of Appeals ruled against Greenville in March 2022. Appellate judges determined that Greenville failed to deliver the “clear proceeds” of its red-light camera tickets to Pitt County Schools. The city and local school system appealed the decision.

The state Supreme Court blocked the Appeals Court ruling. Roughly a year later, in April 2023, the high court agreed to take the case Fearrington v. City of Greenville.

“Education is a constitutional right imperative to the well-being of the children of North Carolina and the state itself. North Carolina guarantees ‘[t]he people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right,’” wrote Jeanette Doran, NCICL president and general counsel, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday.

“To help guard and maintain this right, N.C. Const. Art. IX, § 7, ‘The Fines and Forfeitures Clause,’ mandates that the ‘clear proceeds’ of all fines, penalties, and forfeitures ‘for any breach of the penal laws of the State, shall belong to and remain in the several counties, and shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for maintaining free public schools,’” Doran added.

The NCICL brief challenged the constitutionality of an agreement between Greenville and Pitt County Schools about sharing red-light proceeds.

“A ruling affirming the Court of Appeals’ entry of summary judgment in favor of Plaintiffs’ Article IX, § 7 claim is essential in safeguarding public education and the constitutional framework for its funding,” Doran wrote. “Defendants have entered a Red-Light Camera Enforcement Program interlocal funding agreement that circumvents public school funding requirements established by the People in their Constitution.”

Greenville and the school district “invite an interpretation of Article IX, § 7 that cannot be reconciled with constitutional text and that would render the Fines and Forfeitures Clause impotent,” Doran argued. “Because the Board receives less than the clear proceeds of civil penalties collected by the City’s RLCEP, the RLCEP violates The Fines and Forfeitures Clause, and this Court should so hold.”

The ACLU’s friend-of-the-court brief argues against “profit-driven law enforcement.” The group contends policing linked to profits “undermines public safety,” in addition to being regressive, extractive, and a bad way to fund public services.”

“Simply put, the laudable goal of directing resources towards North Carolina’s public schools does not justify governmental reliance on regressive law enforcement schemes like the one at issue here,” ACLU’s lawyers wrote.

The city and Pitt County school board filed briefs in June supporting the red-light camera funding arrangement. The briefs urged the state Supreme Court to overturn the Appeals Court’s decision.

Greenville ended its red-light program last November, eight months after the appellate ruling.

Pitt schools netted about 72% of the proceeds from Greenville’s red-light camera citations. A unanimous three-judge appellate panel ruled that the schools’ share from red-light camera enforcement 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.

The state Supreme Court has not yet scheduled Fearrington v. City of Greenville for oral arguments.