In July, the N.C. General Assembly passed a bill allowing a handful of municipalities throughout the state, including Chapel Hill, to operate red-light camera if they post warning signs near intersections and develop an out-of-court appeals process.
The law also stated that the owner of a vehicle caught running a red light by a camera -- not necessarily the driver -- will be issued the citation, which carries a $50 fine but no insurance points.
Supporters of red-light cameras cite research indicating the cameras dramatically decrease collisions at intersections.
But opponents view the cameras as intrusive and feel they serve primarily as profit machines for municipal governments where the cameras are located and the private firms that operate them.
Last week, a San Diego superior court judge threw out 300 tickets of red-light violators in a ruling that the cameras conflicted with a California state law forbidding private companies from carrying out law enforcement duties.
But N.C. Special Deputy Attorney General Ike Avery said the ruling should not affect red-light cameras in North Carolina because the state has "no specific" statute barring private companies from performing law enforcement duties.
Chapel Hill Town Manager Cal Horton said the Town Council considered installing red-light cameras last spring and gave the town staff the authority to begin searching for private firms to operate them.
He said he did not know what impact the California court might have on red-light camera efforts in Chapel Hill. "We do expect to review the ruling," he said.
While the California case might not impact red-light cameras in North Carolina, Avery said a lawsuit pending in federal district court filed by Henry Shavitz, a High Point resident, could.
"The heart of the lawsuit is a challenge of the unconstitutional presumption of guilt that is placed on the driver of the vehicle by the camera system," said Shavitz's lawyer, Marshall Hurley.
He said the lawsuit also alleges that the process of appealing a ticket issued from a camera is a violation of due process in that it does not allow such citations to have the same right to a court hearing.
"That statute does not provide for a court hearing," Avery acknowledged. "You have an administrative appeal."
But Hurley said this is unfair. "When the government is taking money out of your pocket, you have the right to be heard," he said. "These guys go behind closed doors and decide whether a person is guilty or innocent."
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