New suits target N.C. law permitting red-light cameras in Greenville, Wilmington

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  • Two new lawsuits challenge the underlying state law that permitted red-light camera enforcement programs.
  • The state's solicitor general points to both new suits in urging the N.C. Supreme Court to avoid taking up a similar case.

Two recent lawsuits challenge the state law that allowed Greenville and Wilmington to set up red-light camera enforcement programs. If successful, the suits would block any N.C. city from operating red-light cameras under that law.

The suits contend that the law violates a state constitutional prohibition on local legislation dealing with public health.

Matthews v. City of Greenville, filed March 31, features eight Pitt County residents as plaintiffs challenging that city’s red-light camera program. Evans v. City of Wilmington, filed April 4, features a single plaintiff. Both suits also target top leaders of the N.C. General Assembly.

Both suits are designed to be class-action lawsuits that would affect other drivers charged with red-light violations. The same Raleigh-based law firm is representing plaintiffs in both cases.

The General Assembly first authorized red-light camera enforcement for Charlotte in 1997. In future years, lawmakers added other cities to the list. Greenville, Wilmington, Raleigh, and Fayetteville are the only N.C. cities operating red-light camera programs today.

Details of the legislature’s authorization of red-light camera enforcement programs are spelled out in N.C. General Statutes Section 160A-300.1, “Use of traffic control photographic systems.”

That provision “is a local law, as it authorizes RLCEP programs in only a select few of the 552 total municipalities in North Carolina,” according to identical passages in both recent lawsuits.

Article II, Section 24(1)(a) of the N.C. Constitution prohibits local acts related to “health, sanitation, and the abatement of nuisances.” So both suits label the red-light statute “void and unenforceable.”

Plaintiffs want a trial court to throw out the state law, local ordinances, and the red-light camera programs. They also want refunds of money paid to cover red-light camera citations.

State Solicitor General Ryan Park referenced both lawsuits in a filing Monday with the N.C. Supreme Court. Park hopes the two suits will help convince the state’s highest court to avoid taking up a different case, Vaitovas v. City of Greenville.

That case also alleges the Greenville red-light camera program is based on an unconstitutional local act dealing with health. But the plaintiff in that case challenged a 2016 bill dealing solely with Greenville, rather than the underlying state law.

A unanimous panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals rejected Vaitovas’ case. The plaintiff is asking the Supreme Court to reconsider the appellate ruling.

“[T]he Court of Appeals held that a local law that helps to finance red-light traffic cameras in Greenville does not impermissibly relate to health, sanitation, and the abatement of nuisances,” Park wrote. “The Court of Appeals premised its ruling in part on the fact that plaintiff ‘did not challenge the underlying statute’ that authorized Greenville to operate a red-light-camera program.”

“The legislative defendants were recently served with two complaints that squarely challenge that underlying statute,” Park added. “The legislative defendants respectfully submit that this development only reinforces that this Court’s review is not warranted in this case. Should the Court believe it appropriate to consider the constitutionality of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-300.1, a more appropriate vehicle for doing so will likely materialize in due course.”

The state Supreme Court already has stepped into the legal fight over Greenville’s red-light program. Justices agreed on March 30 to block a separate Appeals Court ruling against the program. In the case Fearrington v. City of Greenville, plaintiffs argued that Pitt County schools did not collect enough of the “clear proceeds” from red-light camera citations.

Filings continue in the state Supreme Court to determine the ultimate fate of the legal challenge based on the red-light camera program’s financing scheme.