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Cameras already a failed experiment

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A red light camera at the intersection of Greenville and Arlington boulevards.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Before the first fine was issued, a controversial red light camera scheme had already begun causing legal headaches for the city of Greenville.

Automated traffic enforcement cameras began generating $100 civil citations Wednesday following a 30-day warning period, but on Sept. 26, Greenville resident William Kozel sued the city and the Pitt County Board of Education, claiming the program violates North Carolina’s state constitution.

Article IX, Section 7 of the N.C. Constitution requires that the “clear proceeds” of all penalties, forfeitures and fines collected by local governments “shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for maintaining free public schools.” Courts have held that at least 90 percent of fines such as those generated by traffic cameras must be given to school systems in order to meet the “clear proceeds” standard.

Kozel said Pitt County Schools will be shortchanged so American Traffic Systems can take its cut of the action. Installing red light cameras at five Greenville intersections comes at a cost of roughly $2.5 million.

A three-judge N.C. Court of Appeals panel ruled in 2006 that the city of High Point violated the state constitution by deducting traffic camera operators’ payout from fine proceeds and giving the remainder to the schools.

Kozel’s suit contends Greenville is trying to skirt the case law by turning the money over to Pitt County Schools and making it pay American Traffic Systems.

“This is a distinction without a difference constitutionally,” the lawsuit states.

A plain reading of the N.C. Constitution suggests Kozel is right. Fines must be “appropriated and used exclusively for maintaining free public schools.” Appropriating money for one purpose and using it for another fails the test. Under this disingenuous arrangement, the law is broken in both letter and spirit.

Kozel’s attorney is Paul “Skip” Stam, who served as N.C. House speaker pro-tem before retiring from the legislature last year. His familiarity with the state constitution and laws would make him a formidable adversary. If the city of Greenville is smart, it won’t let this case get anywhere near a courtroom.

The lawsuit also says the cameras, in conjunction with the timed traffic signals, fail to give motorists adequate time to stop at yellow lights and avoid crossing the intersection and paying through the nose.

Greenville has broken the law, the civil complaint contents, “by creating an offense for which a penalty may be assessed that is contrary to the immutable laws of physics.”

The Wilson Times opposes red light cameras for a simpler reason — they catch cars rather than drivers. The robocams capture images of taillights and license plates. Tickets are mailed to vehicles’ registered owners regardless of who was behind the wheel.

Many motorists share family cars with spouses and children, and in a college town like Greenville, letting a roommate or significant other borrow the keys certainly isn’t unheard of.

City officials say there’s a process for owners to transfer responsibility by snitching on the guilty party. The whole unseemly enterprise flips due process and the presumption of innocence on its head.

Faulkner University law professor Adam J. MacLeod successfully challenged an Alabama speed enforcement camera citation last year by arguing that the police officer who signed his ticket committed perjury because he didn’t witness the offense and had no evidence against MacLeod — just a picture of his car.

Would similar arguments persuade North Carolina judges? After all, Greenville police officers are asked to sign tickets accusing individuals of civil infractions when the evidence they have implicates machines, not people. A retired police sergeant we know and trust calls the whole thing a “scam.”

If the Greenville City Council wants to step up traffic enforcement, it should allow police to do so without cutting corners. Officers can monitor problem intersections with marked and unmarked cars, pull over vehicles that run red lights and ticket the actual drivers who break the law.

It’s time to pull the plug on red light robocams. Leaving them installed means Greenville taxpayers will be forced to foot the bill for court battles the city is likely to lose.

From The Wilson Times. An editorial in support of red-light cameras from The Daily Reflector was published Sunday.

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