Speeding: Local Ordinance Violation or State Law Infraction?

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Suppose a North Carolina city adopts an ordinance establishing a local speed limit of 25 miles per hour for all city streets that are not otherwise marked. Signs are posted on city streets reflecting the 25 mile per hour limit. Absent this ordinance, state law would provide for a speed limit of thirty-five miles per hour inside the municipal corporate limits. The city’s municipal code provides that violations of its provisions are not governed by G.S. 14-4, which otherwise would render the violation of a local ordinance regulating traffic an infraction. The municipal code also states that speeding on a city street is punishable by a civil penalty of $75 and requires that payment be made to the town hall. A local law enforcement officer stops a car that is traveling 40 miles per hour on a city street. May the officer issue a civil citation to the driver, requiring payment of the $75 penalty?  May the officer cite the driver for speeding in violation of state law, an infraction?  May the officer choose between these two methods of enforcement?

Cut to the chase.  No.  Yes.  And no.  Those are my answers.  Here’s my explanation.

State law regulating speeding.  G.S. 20-141 prohibits various varieties of speeding on streets and highways within North Carolina.  G.S. 20-141(b) provides:

Except as otherwise provided in this Chapter, it shall be unlawful to operate a vehicle in excess of the following speeds:

(1) Thirty-five miles per hour inside municipal corporate limits for all vehicles;

(2) Fifty-five miles per hour outside municipal corporate limits for all vehicles except for school buses and school activity buses.

G.S. 20-141(e) permits local authorities to “authorize by ordinance higher or lower speeds than those set out in subsection (b) upon all streets which are not part of the State highway system.” Such speed limits are effective “when appropriate signs giving notice thereof are erected upon the part of the streets affected.”

Violations of G.S. 20-141(b) are infractions punishable by a fine of not more than $100.  G.S. 20-176.

Thus, when a person drives a vehicle in excess of 35 miles per hour on a city street with a 35 mile per hour speed limit, that offense clearly is a violation of G.S. 20-141(b), and is punishable as an infraction. A person charged with such an infraction must be ordered to appear in district court, where, if found responsible, the person may be ordered to pay a fine of up to $100 and court costs. See G.S.15A-1114, 20-176.

A city may not adopt an ordinance prohibiting conduct identical to that constituting a crime or infraction under state law. G.S. 160-174(b)(6). Thus, it is clear that when the default speed limits under G.S. 20-141(b) apply, speeding in excess of those limits is an infraction under state law and may not also be defined as a local ordinance violation.

Some believe that a different rule applies when the city departs from the presumptive speed limits set forth in G.S. 20-141(b). They reason that G.S. 20-141(b) defines a crime “except as otherwise provided,” and that local ordinances authorizing higher or lower speeds adopted pursuant to G.S. 20-141(e) do otherwise provide. Thus, the argument goes, the violation when a person speeds over a locally established speed limit is an ordinance violation, rather than a violation of state law. As a result, the offender may properly be cited solely with violating the ordinance, which benefits the offender and, in some circumstances, the city. North Carolina’s Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) does not maintain a record of a driver’s adjudication of responsibility for local ordinance violations as it does for records of violations of the State’s motor vehicle laws.  As a result, no license or insurance points are assessed for local ordinance violations. And when the ordinance violation is not punished as an infraction in district court, no court costs are assessed. Furthermore, if the violation is solely considered a local ordinance violation and not a violation of the State’s penal laws, then the city may keep the proceeds rather than remitting them to the local school board.

As I’ve already said, I don’t share this view. Though G.S. 20-141(b) is perhaps inartfully drafted, I understand it, when read in conjunction with G.S. 20-141(e), to prohibit all speeding that exceeds either the default or the posted speed limits.  And while G.S. 20-141(e) clearly authorizes local authorities to set their own speed limits, it does not authorize them to enact an ordinance prohibiting driving in excess of those speed limits as that conduct already is prohibited by G.S. 20-141(b). To interpret the provisions otherwise results in a hodgepodge enforcement scheme, where the nature of the violation and the applicable punishment depends upon whether a city happens to have departed from the default limitations in G.S. 20-141(b). On city streets where the speed limit is 35 miles per hour, only a state law infraction could be charged. On streets with a higher or lower speed limit, officers would have a choice as to whether to charge an infraction or an ordinance violation, with the latter charges inuring to the driver’s benefit as well as, perhaps, the city’s. Such inconsistent regulation strikes me as entirely inconsistent with the comprehensive scheme in Chapter 20 regulating the operation of vehicles, and, thus, unlikely to reflect the legislature’s intent.

9 comments on “Speeding: Local Ordinance Violation or State Law Infraction?

  1. Speaking of remitting fines to the school board, as required by the NC Constitution, does it really cost the state more to process an Improper Equipment than other tickets. Or, are they just diverting fines from the school board to the State treasury?

    • It does not cost more to process an improper equipment violation. In fact, the court costs are the same for an improper equipment conviction as for any other infraction ($188.00). But in 2011 when the State passed the so-called Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA), they included a provision for shifting a substantial portion of the expense of housing inmates from the State to local counties. Prior to the JRA, all misdemeanor convictions that resulted in sentences of more than 90 days were assigned to be served in the NC Department of Corrections, where the State pays for the incarceration. One of the findings by the group that sponsored the JRA was that North Carolina was spending too much on prisons in part because of the number of misdemeanants confined in DOC.

      So the legislature wanted to shift those expenses. But rather than simply require county jails to house all misdemeanants (which would have gone over like a lead balloon) the legislature created the Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program (MCP), which is a collection of local jails that work together to house misdemeanants. Originally, all sentences that resulted in more than 90 days but less than or equal to 180 days went to the MCP and only 180+ day sentences could go to DOC. (That has changed, now more misdemeanor sentences go to MCP than that). Of course someone still has to pay to house these inmates. Just because the State doesn’t want to actually pay for things like crime control and public safety does not mean that they are not necessary. So a mechanism for funding the MCP was needed.

      After all, if local counties had to pay, there might be political consequences for the legislature. So instead they created the improper equipment fee. What is the improper equipment fee? It is a $50.00 fee that must be assessed by the court whenever someone is convicted of an improper equipment offense, and it is used to pay for the MCP. (And it has raised lots of money).

      So that is the difference between an improper equipment and other traffic infractions. It is still the best result for a speeding ticket because it keeps the points off your insurance (which is why people still pay the $50.00 IE fee rather than take a moving violation). But the money does not go back to the court system, it does not go to pay judges, clerks, prosecutors, public defenders, or any other court related expenses. It pays for the MCP so the State can claim it is saving money on prisons.

  2. State Laws should govern all within the respective states with local ordinances being addendums. Local laws can add to state’s but not take away or subtract from.

    • As a state cannot make a law that trumps federal then a city or town should not trump the states authority.. Just a thought.

  3. The Raleigh Police Department was doing this a few years ago until the city attorney stopped it. The News and Observer did a special report on it and at first the city police attorney defended it. Basically RPD was writing city ordinance speeding tickets at the officer’s discretion in lieu of a state citation.

    I agree with Ms. Denning that state law is pretty clear and the city cannot by ordinance regulate speed violations on a public street or highway through an ordinance ticket. I also generally dislike city ordinances that don’t use 14-4 and instead use the civil penalty route. Unless the particular ordinance serves a remedial purpose like nuisances or parking offenses where the city is directly harmed, I don’t think cities should financially benefit from a punitive action created by making a crime punished with a civil penalty. If the activity is not already regulated by an existing state law, then I am all for cities to create ordinances to regulate certain conduct, but it should primarily be enforced through 14-4 and go to District Court. Any fine at that point would go to the school system. If you challenge a civil ordinance ticket it goes to some arbitrator like review process where the person making the decision gets paid by the city.

    Very soon, Fayetteville, NC will be putting red light cameras back in operation under a revised procedure attempting to side step the NC Constitution as it was interpreted by Court of Appeals. 90% of the fines collected through the camera system are supposed to go to the school system under the clear proceeds provision of the NC Constitution as ruled in the Shavitz decision out of Guilford County. This new procedure is an agreement between the City of Fayetteville and Cumberland County School Board where the school system will get 100% of the fines collected and the school system will give money back to the city of Fayetteville. I am simply not persuaded that this is even remotely consistent with the NC Constitution Article IX, Section 7.

  4. The beach towns love the civil penality tickets, just cross the dunes and find out. I really don’t have an issue with the civil citations. The towns make out, collecting a few dollars, and the defendants make out by saving money in the end. The people that profit from speeding tickets and such are the insurance companies that raise your rates and increasde profits based on the actions of LE. Makes me sick. The school system gets all the civil fines from court, and still demand more money every year. I am not sure how they can spend all the money, but they do. Certainly not at the class room level.

  5. I’m all for the towns giving civil citations that benefit both the driver and the town.
    Court cost alone for an average speeding ticket is approximately $180.00 not counting the fine. The court cost fee alone are beyond reasonable and oppressive to most.
    Just my opinion but the civil citation is the common sense approach and also holds a person responsible for their mistake.

  6. My regatta received a ticket and going 15 miles over the speed limit 45 in the 60 and the ticket says it’s a G 2140 1B if that’s an infraction doesn’t go against her record is at the state park or the county part.. going 15 miles over the speed limit 45 in the 60 and the ticket says it’s a GS 2140 1B if that’s an infraction does it go against her record is at the state partor the county part..thank you for you help

  7. Somewhat unrelated, does a parking enforcement employee have authority to issue a parking citation if the basis of the offense is for allegedly violating a North Carolina statute, rather than a violation of the Town of Chapel Hill municipal code? The specific violation is “Parking in a Travel Lane”, I am unaware what specific Gen. Stat. that violates.

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