United States

Pending camera litigation could green light program elsewhere

(The Center Square) – A pending request for the North Carolina Supreme Court to take up red-light camera litigation could have a significant impact on how and where municipalities deploy the technology.

Attorneys for the city of Greenville have repeatedly filed requests with the state Supreme Court to review a unanimous March 2022 appellate court ruling that found the city did not devote enough of the proceeds from red-light camera citations to public schools.

The case is one of several involving red-light camera programs in four of the state’s 530 municipalities: Raleigh, Fayetteville, Wilmington, and Greenville. Greenville and Fayetteville opted to shut down their programs in November amid pending litigation, and a lawsuit is now underway in Wilmington, said Skip Stam, attorney representing clients in all three cases.

Raleigh’s red-light camera program operates under different rules that don’t apply to the other cities, he said.

Both Greenville and the plaintiffs in that case have requested justices examine the appellate ruling for different reasons, though the high court is not obligated to grant the requests.

The Greenville and Fayetteville cases both center on Article IX, Section 7 of the state constitution that requires the “clear proceeds” of fines, penalties and forfeitures collected in North Carolina counties go to local schools. State statute defines “clear proceeds” as no less than 90% of all penalties and fines.

The March 2022 appeals court ruling found Greenville effectively devoted about 72% of red-light camera proceeds to Pitt County Schools, and that percentage must top 90% to constitute “clear proceeds.”

“That’s the basis on which we won the Greenville case in the Court of Appeals and that’s the basis on which we sued Fayetteville,” Stam said.

Greenville argues the pending lawsuit against Fayetteville is evidence the issue is “a matter of significant public interest” that if left unresolved “will negatively impact the ability of red light programs … to function and provide valuable resources to public school systems,” according to Greenville’s motion for discretionary review.

A separate appeal for review from plaintiffs in the Greenville case requests the Supreme Court rule on a different issue: “uncontested evidence 80-90% of people who get the tickets are actually innocent,” Stam said.

Stam contends most tickets issued involve people trapped in the dilemma zone because yellow lights are too short.

“Camera companies pick locations that are most likely to involve people running red lights,” he said.

The locations are most often well-traveled, crowded roads that are disproportionately used by lower income, minority motorists, he said.

“It ends up being a regressive tax on 80-90% innocent people who are disproportionately low income,” Stam said.

“If they could only do the tickets for the 10-20% who really ran a red light … it wouldn’t be financially feasible,” he said.

A Supreme Court ruling upholding the appellate decision or finding in favor of the plaintiffs would likely dissuade municipalities from considering similar programs, while a ruling in Greenville’s favor could pave the way for more red-light cameras, said Scott Mooneyham, director of political communication at the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

“I’m sure if the Supreme Court were to say what Greenville is doing is reasonable, would other cities reinstitute some of their programs? Possibly,” he said. Greenville’s appeal to the Supreme Court “would imply … they’re looking to reinstitute the program.”

Whether the Supreme Court takes up the case, and how a new Republican majority on the court might rule, remain unclear. Stam noted that newly seated Republican Justice Richard Dietz ruled on the case in the Court of Appeals.

“It was never supposed to be a money maker,” Stam said of the camera programs. “It was supposed to be about public health.”

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