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Home / Opinion Digests / Constitutional / Constitutional — Fines & Forfeitures Clause – Red Light Cameras – Schools & School Boards – Municipal – Collection & Enforcement Costs

Constitutional — Fines & Forfeitures Clause – Red Light Cameras – Schools & School Boards – Municipal – Collection & Enforcement Costs

Fines collected pursuant to the City of Greenville’s red light camera program are paid to the school board, but the city violates N.C. Const. art. IX, § 7 and G.S. § 115C-437 when it charges the school board for enforcement costs and when it charges the school board for costs exceeding ten percent of the fines.

We reverse the superior court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ claim under the Fines and Forfeitures Clause, and we remand for entry of summary judgment in plaintiffs’ favor. Otherwise, we affirm the trial court’s orders in favor of defendants. We dismiss plaintiff’s assignment of error as to an expert affidavit; this issue was not preserved for appellate review.

The Fines and Forfeitures Clause of our state constitution requires that “the clear proceeds of all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected in the several counties for any breach of the penal laws of the State … shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for maintaining free public schools.” N.C. Const. art. IX, § 7. By “clear proceeds” is meant the total sum, less only the sheriff’s fees for collection, when the fine and costs are collected in full. Costs of collection do not include the costs associated with enforcing the ordinance but are limited to the administrative costs of collecting the funds.

G.S. § 115C-437 requires that “the full amount of all penalties, forfeitures or fines collected under authority conferred by the State, diminished only by the costs of collection, not to exceed ten percent of the amount collected.”

Greenville contracts with the Arizona firm American Traffic Solutions (ATS) for the installation, maintenance and management of the city’s red light camera program.

After program expenses, including fees invoiced by ATS, the school board ultimately receives only 71.66 percent of the total amount of fines and fees collected by Greenville. Under § 115C-437, the school board must receive, at a minimum, 90 percent.

Greenville invoices the school board for the salary and benefits of a law enforcement officer as well as for all fees invoiced to Greenville by ATS. The salary and benefits of law enforcement officers are enforcement costs and are thus not deductible from “clear proceeds.” Also, the contract between ATS and Greenville requires that Greenville pay ATS $31.85 in fees for every $100 paid citation, in addition to other fees. Even assuming that the entirety of the $31.85 fee was for collection costs, Greenville is only permitted to deduct $10 from every $100 citation to offset the costs of collection.

Although Greenville initially forwards the entire $100 per citation to the school board and then collects its expenses at a later date, this does not comply with the constitutional mandate that the clear proceeds of such fines be “faithfully appropriated” to the public schools. Moreover, by stating that the clear proceeds are to “remain in the several counties,” the framers clearly did not intend for $31.85 of every $100 paid fine go to private companies such as ATS, a for-profit corporation in Arizona.

Plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment on their claim under the Fines and Forfeitures Clause.

Other Issues

Even though defendants informed plaintiff Fearrington that he should have sought a declaratory judgment rather than the petition for judicial review that he (correctly) filed after he lost at the city’s administrative hearing, the consent order entered by the superior court—concluding that Fearrington had “fully exhausted his administrative remedies”—functioned as the exhaustion of his administrative remedies. We reject defendants’ argument that plaintiffs’ claims should be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

We also reject defendants’ challenge to plaintiffs’ standing. Not only were plaintiffs both issued citations and found liable for a $100 fine, but they both also alleged that they were taxpayers of Pitt County. There is no serious question that a taxpayer has an equitable right to sue to prevent an illegal disposition of the moneys of a county.

Even if defendants violated G.S. Chapter 89C by using red light camera plans drawn by unlicensed engineers, Chapter 89C does not contemplate or provide a private cause of action for violations of its provisions.

Although a “Notice of Determination” found Fearrington “liable” because he had “no defense”—despite the fact that Fearrington had submitted that the red-light program violated substantive dues process as well as the Fines and Forfeitures Clause—municipal hearing officers do not have jurisdiction to decide constitutional issues. The superior court decides constitutional questions de novo. The procedures in this case protected plaintiffs’ procedural due process rights.

Plaintiffs argue that the red-light program infringes on their fundamental right to travel. We disagree. So long as laws relating to the rules of the road are reasonably adapted to the attainment of the government’s interest in public safety, they will not be disturbed upon review by the courts.

Plaintiffs’ expert noted that plaintiffs entered the intersection in question within 0.4 seconds of the light turning red, stating that “such a quick time is discernable only by computer-triggered cameras, not by human perception.” In his opinion, plaintiffs “had no reason to know they were running a red light.”

Developments in technology will continue to present challenging problems with which policymakers must contend. This court, however, does not sit to make policy determinations. A citizen’s best defense to what he sees as incompetent or corrupt policy judgments is to appeal to his fellow citizens and hold his government to account at the ballot box.

Dismissed in part; affirmed in part; reversed and remanded in part.

Fearrington v. City of Greenville (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-058-22, 32 pp.) (Jefferson Griffin, J.) Appealed from Pitt County Superior Court (Jeffery Foster, J.) Daniel Gibson and Paul Stam for plaintiffs; Dan Hartzog, Robert King, Jill Wilson and Elizabeth Troutman for defendants. 2022-NCCOA-158

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