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Attorney questions legality of Wilmington’s red light camera program following Appeals Court ruling

90% of the money collected from fines must go to the local school system
Published: Mar. 28, 2022 at 4:16 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Questions as to the legality of red-light cameras in Wilmington have arisen following a decision made by the NC Court of Appeals against the City of Greenville’s program.

Running a red light is dangerous, but when it comes to fines collected, the law is clear: 90% of the money collected from fines must go to the local school system.

“The clear proceeds of all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected for any breach of the penal laws of the State, as referred to in Article IX, Sec. 7 of the Constitution, shall include 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,” according to N.C. General Statute § 115C-437.

In Greenville, that was not happening. According to Paul Stam of the Stam Law Firm, the company, American Traffic Solutions was getting closer to 30% of the fines. The judges at the State Appeals Court ruled the arrangement in Greenville violates the State Constitution.

“The Court of Appeals declared that the Greeneville program was unconstitutional, because it did not give 90 ― at least 90% of the proceeds, of the citations, to the schools,” Stam said.

According to the court’s order, a lawsuit against the city for their program was remanded back to a lower court where that court would be compelled to rule in favor of the plaintiffs who challenged the program.

Stam says there are several other cities in the state with similar programs that could be challenged next, and believes the cities of Greenville, Fayetteville, and Wilmington all operate programs that violate the law.

“In my opinion, is they’re blatantly unconstitutional,” he said.

Wilmington’s Safe Light Program

The program in place in Greenville was slightly different than Wilmington’s Safe Light Program; however, Stam says there are still concerns.

“It’s a more complicated transaction than in Greenville where it was straight out — we’ll give you $1 and you give us 30 cents back and we’ll say we gave 100% to the schools, even though we bill you to get 30 cents back,” Stam said. “And that’s similar, but more complicated in Wilmington, where they get some of the money back from the county.”

In 2021, New Hanover Schools received $956,536 from fines, while ATS received around half a million dollars from both the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County, according to a contract signed by Wilmington City Council in 2020.

“The estimated annual payments to American Traffic Solutions will be $460,000. However, the City’s net general fund contribution for this contract, considering payment residual of $100,000 and the ongoing New Hanover County Inter-local Agreement, is approximately $180,000 annually,” according to that contract.

This means that New Hanover County Schools does receive 90% of all fines; then, the city and the county use taxpayer revenues to pay the company on top of the 10% they are allowed by law to take from the fees.

Red light fines are $50 in Wilmington, but according to the contract with ATS, they are paid nearly half of that amount per citation paid.

“[We] offer the following technology enhancements and additional services at our current contracted rate of $22.50 per paid citation,” the contract reads.

That’s 45% of the total fines collected, albeit, not all of it is paid directly from the citation revenues. It’s a work around to ensure that the company providing the services is compensated for their work.

But judges said, at least in Greenville, the program was working to get around the law.

“The clear purpose of the people in mandating that the clear proceeds of such fines be ‘faithfully appropriated’ to the public schools cannot be circumvented by the elaborate diversion of funds or cleverly drafted contracts,” according to the court’s ruling.

Since New Hanover County already provides funds for New Hanover County Schools, Stam says there are questions of legality.

“Well, the county is also the entity that funds a portion of the public New Hanover County Public Schools. So, the effective net result is that the schools are getting much less than 90 cents on the dollar,” he said.

“At least 90% has to go to the public schools and these four cities don’t get anywhere near [that] for that 90% to the public schools, except through a scheme by which they think they can get away with it.”

New Hanover County did respond to a request for comment; however, they deferred to Wilmington for more information.

“While New Hanover County does provide a small amount of funding for these, the City of Wilmington is the operator of the traffic light cameras and would have more insight into them,” County Spokesman Alex Riley said.

Wilmington’s legal department has not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Yellow light timing also a concern

There is an additional argument Stam makes against these systems across the state, that is the timing of the yellow lights.

“The basic problem with the program is that the yellow lights are too short. In other words, people with knowledge of physics and engineering, know that the timing is wrong. They’re using the wrong equation, and have been using it for decades. And the Institution of Transportation Engineers, which is a international group, I think, of 16,000 engineers, has recommended that they change their equation. It’s just too short,” he said.

The court of appeals did not side in favor of the plaintiffs for this argument, Stam said. However, the timing of yellow lights has come up multiple times in Wilmington when discussing these cameras, and engineers agree that oftentimes, the lights change too fast.

“According to the only engineer who testified in our case, [he] said 80 to 90% of the people who receive the citations are actually innocent, in the sense that they were going at the correct speed limit, they did everything reasonably necessary to not run a red light. And yet they were caught, you know, half a second into it, because of the mis-design of the yellow light intervals,” he said.

Stam is adamant that the arguments here are not in support of anyone running a red light, but says the timing and these systems are putting drivers between a rock and a hard place.

“People should not run red lights, and the government should not trap people into inadvertently running the red light by having the yellow light be significantly shorter than it should be,” he said.

So what does this mean for drivers? Stam offered a real-life example of someone who called him about a no-win situation he experienced.

“For example, the fellow who wrote me last last week, or called me last week, was driving 35 on strike through, and he had an 18-wheeler behind him and the yellow light came up. And if he had tried to stop, he would have been crushed by the 18-wheeler. So that’s the basic problem. It’s especially bad at left turns, which is where a whole lot of the citations are given. And that’s the basic problem which brought these clients to see me, they all felt that they were doing the speed limit, intended to obey all the laws, and yet, they were trapped,” he said.

Ultimately, the legality of Wilmington’s program would likely have to be decided in court, and Stam said he has already been in touch with someone from Wilmington who might be willing to challenge it, if they decide that is the route they want to take.

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