N.C. city's red light camera legislation passes state senate rules committee

Measure now heads to senate floor

July 23--RALEIGH -- Fayetteville's red light camera legislation passed the Senate Rules Committee by a voice vote Wednesday morning and is expected to be heard on the Senate floor Thursday. 

If it passes the Senate without modification, it will become law and help Fayetteville bring back red light cameras for the first time since they were shut off in May 2007 because state courts ruled their funding mechanism violated the North Carolina constitution.

The cameras would be mounted at traffic signals to take pictures of motorists running red lights. Tickets of up to $100 would then be mailed to the vehicle owners based on their license plates.

When the city had the cameras in the early 2000s, crash rates declined. The tickets' fines also would generate revenue for the schools.

Fayetteville, Cumberland County and Cumberland school officials want the cameras back to improve community safety, state Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Fayetteville Democrat, told the committee members.

In arguing for the cameras, Floyd cited a recent car crash that killed three people in Fayetteville. Fayetteville police, however, say the crash was not related to a red light runner but was caused by a driver who crossed to the wrong side of the road and hit two other vehicles head-on on Murchison Road.

Some lawmakers said they were sympathetic to Fayetteville's desire to make its roads safer but think red light cameras are the wrong way to do it.

"I think we're making a bad mistake here," said Republican state Sen. Brent Jackson of Sampson County. He cited a study of red light cameras in Florida that found that the timing of the yellow lights was cut in half, creating traps to catch people and issue tickets.

When Fayetteville previously had red-light cameras, a private contractor operated them. The more tickets it issued, the more money the company made.

Floyd said the length of the yellow lights in North Carolina is set by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

After the vote, Republican state Sen. Tom Apodaca, the Rules Committee chairman, said he opposes the red light camera bill, even though he allowed it to advance. Earlier Wednesday, Apodaca used his position to kill an unrelated bill that would have allowed law enforcement to permanently install license-plate scanning surveillance cameras on state-owned rights-of-way.

"I just hate the concept of cameras," Apodaca said. "I think I just think it's intrusive. I think it's big brother run amuck. So I won't vote for it, regardless."

Apodaca expects the bill to pass the Senate.

Jackson and other lawmakers wondered why Fayetteville needs the legislation. The city has been authorized since the 1990s to install red light cameras. It used to have 10 throughout the city and could install some again without the bill.

The legislation addresses the desire of Fayetteville officials to install the cameras without making their taxpayers pay for them.

Instead of using city funds to install and maintain the cameras, Fayetteville wants to use the proceeds from the camera fines to cover their costs.

The problem with that plan, which is how the cameras used to be funded, is that it violates the state constitution. The state constitution mandates that fines and forfeiture proceeds be given to the local school system.

To get around that rule, the legislation creates a means for Fayetteville and the county schools to "launder" the money. It would have Fayetteville give all the red light camera fines to the Cumberland County Board of Education, and the Board of Education would keep part and give the rest back to the city to pay for the cameras.

It's unknown whether North Carolina's courts would consider the back-and-forth money transfer to be constitutional.

Staff writer Paul Woolverton can be reached at woolvertonp@fayobserver.com, 919-828-7641 or 486-3512.

Copyright 2014 - The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.