State’s highest court will review case of now-defunct Greenville red-light cameras

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

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  • More than one year after the N.C. Court of Appeals struck down Greenville's red-light camera enforcement program as unconstitutional, the N.C. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Greenville's appeal.
  • The Appeals Court ruled that Greenville failed to provide enough money from its program to Pitt County Schools. Both Greenville and the school system challenged that ruling.

The N.C. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Greenville’s appeal of a lower-court ruling against the city’s red-light camera enforcement program. Greenville ended its program last November, eight months after the state Appeals Court 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.

New orders issued Thursday block the Appeals Court’s ruling and allow the city to continue its legal fight at the state’s highest court.

In urging the state Supreme Court in January to take up the case Fearrington v. City of Greenville, the city’s lawyers cited a separate lawsuit challenging red-light cameras in Fayetteville. Yet that city also cut off its cameras in November.

Only Raleigh and Wilmington run active red-light camera enforcement programs in North Carolina. Wilmington’s program faces a legal challenge aided by the same law firm that has challenged Greenville and Fayetteville cameras.

Attorneys from the Stam Law Firm in Apex filed paperwork with the N.C. Supreme Court in January. They asked justices to reject the latest plea from Greenville’s government. (Attorney Paul “Skip” Stam is a member of the board of directors of the John Locke Foundation, which oversees Carolina Journal).

Greenville asked the court for permission to supplement its request for a discretionary review of the Fearrington case. The city also asked the state Supreme Court to take “judicial notice” of the Fayetteville red-light challenge, Allen v. City of Fayetteville.

A court takes judicial notice when it declares a fact presented as evidence as true, without the formal process of having the evidence presented.

“Allen v. City of Fayetteville does not alter this Court’s analysis of Greenville’s petition for discretionary review,” according to the red-light critics’ court filing. “Of more than five hundred North Carolina municipalities, just two have active red-light camera programs. … Fayetteville and Greenville terminated their programs in late 2022. A lawsuit against Fayetteville does not alter the effect on the public interest. Nor does it affect the validity of the Court of Appeals’ unanimous decision.”

A unanimous three-judge Appeals Court panel ruled in March 2022 that Greenville’s red-light camera program was unconstitutional. Appellate judges agreed the program failed to send enough proceeds from its red-light citations to Pitt County schools.

Critics reminded the state Supreme Court that Greenville had modeled its red-light camera program on Fayetteville’s. “More importantly, both Greenville and Fayetteville have stopped operating their red-light camera programs. … Whatever effect these red-light camera programs had on the public interest ended in November 2022.”

Regardless of the similarities between the two cities’ programs, the legal cases are distinct, according to red-light critics’ brief.

“Many of Plaintiffs claims relate specifically to how Greenville applies its red-light camera program, such as how it conducts its hearings (e.g., by forcibly preventing recording of administrative hearings) or how its camera designs were approved (e.g., without a proper seal from a licensed engineer),” red-light critics contended. “Those facts may differ between Greenville and Fayetteville. Fayetteville’s application of the law is irrelevant to an as-applied challenge to Greenville’s application of the law.”

Greenville contended that the Fayetteville red-light challenge bolstered its case for a state Supreme Court review.

“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 the Fearrington case. “[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 cited the March 2022 Appeals Court ruling against Greenville’s red-light program.

Greenville is pursuing its case 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.”