City’s red-light camera program was lawful after all, North Carolina justices say

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – A pair of North Carolina local governments didn’t skirt state laws by creating a red-light camera enforcement system where nearly a fourth of collected penalties failed to remain within the area school district, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The 5-1 decision reverses a March 2022 Court of Appeals opinion that declared the city of Greenville’s program unconstitutional.

Although the city council discontinued the program months later, the cost-sharing arrangement between the city and the Pitt County Board of Education was also upheld by the state’s highest court. That could provide a pathway for other municipalities who want a red-light program but can’t make it work financially.

A provision within the state constitution says the “clear proceeds” of all fines collected for such violations must be “used exclusively for maintaining free public schools.” The General Assembly and courts have said a county school system must receive at least 90% of the total penalties and fines collected to meet the definition of “clear proceeds.”

Roughly 20 North Carolina towns and cities have been authorized by the legislature to operate traffic-control photograph programs. Greenville contracted in 2017 with an Arizona company to install and operate the red-light cameras. Motorists photographed driving through red lights received citations and faced a $100 penalty.

In 2016, however, the legislature voted to give Greenville and the Pitt school board the ability to negotiate a cost-sharing and reimbursement arrangement. Under the agreed-upon plan, Greenville would first pay the school board 100% of the money collected. Then the school board would turn around and pay city invoices — covering things like fees for the Arizona company, the salary and benefits for a police officer that ran the program, and other expenses.

When all those payments were complete, the Pitt school board received over a roughly two-year period 72% of the $2.5 million collected.

In 2019, two motorists who were cited for red-light violations sued the city and the school board, saying the program and the cost-sharing agreement violated state laws and the constitution. Writing Thursday’s majority opinion, Associate Justice Anita Earls said the two motorists had legal standing to sue as taxpayers.

But Earls said it was apparent through the 2016 law and other context that the General Assembly aimed to grant Greenville and the Pitt County board flexibility on the requirement that the municipality could keep no more than 10% of the fines. Greenville had initiated a red-light program once before, in the 2000s, but abandoned it a few years later, saying the 10% limit made the program economically infeasible, the opinion read.

As for the language in the state constitution, Pitt County schools benefit from the “clear proceeds” of the red-light penalties because Greenville “recoups only the ‘reasonable costs of collection,’” Earls said.

“Greenville does not profit from the arrangement or use the fines to pad its general operating budget,” Earls wrote, adding that without the funding arrangement, “the program would not exist and Pitt County schools would lose an important pillar of financial support.”

Associate Justice Phil Berger, writing a dissenting opinion, said the funding arrangement cannot be squared with the constitution, with the state law requiring at least a 90% payout, “with basic math, or common definitions.”

“The majority’s assertion that a local bill can override these statutory and constitutional strictures is the legal equivalent of saying 2+2=5,” Berger wrote.

Associate Justice Richard Dietz, who was on the Court of Appeals panel that ruled in 2022, didn’t participate in the Supreme Court’s consideration of the case.