We are NOT Ferguson

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Being married to me is hard. My husband makes an off-hand comment about how the city must need money since the police are pulling people over left and right for speeding on the road he travels to work. What does he get in response? A lecture on the state’s uniform court system and the fines and forfeitures clause of our state constitution. Thankfully, he is a patient man. He took it so well that I thought I’d share the finer points of that discussion with you.

We are not Ferguson. North Carolina rid itself more than fifty years ago of the policing and prosecutorial practices that have been blamed for corrupting law enforcement and municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri, namely, policing and adjudicating for profit.

Unified court system. Before the 1960s, as my colleague Michael Crowell explains here, thousands of local courts scattered throughout North Carolina were presided over by judges who were paid by the fees they collected. That practice changed when the state constitution was amended to create a uniform statewide court system. Under that system, all judges and court employees are salaried; they do not depend on the collection of fees for payment. Article IV, Section 20 of the constitution requires that the legislature establish a uniform statewide schedule of fees and that the operating expenses of the judicial department be paid from State funds.

Fines go to the public schools. The elimination of city policing for profit dates even further back. Article IX, Section 7, of the North Carolina Constitution provides that the “clear proceeds of all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected in the several counties for any breach of the penal laws of the State . . . shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for maintaining free public schools.” The provision, adopted in the 1875 constitution, provided for the first state constitutional allocation of money directly to local governments for public education and effectively extended the penalties, fines, and forfeitures component of the 1868 constitution’s “irreducible educational fund.” See David M. Lawrence, Fines, Penalties, and Forfeitures: An Historical and Comparative Analysis, 65 N.C. L. REV. 49, 57–58 (1986).

So, neither the judge who adjudicates you responsible for speeding in district court nor the city that employees the officer who pulled you over profit directly from the issuance of your speeding ticket and your payment of the accompanying fine.

What about court costs? If you’ve been found responsible for a traffic violation recently, you likely recall that the applicable fine paled in comparison to the court costs, which are $190 for a Chapter 20 case disposed of in district court. You may have wondered where those sums go. That’s a bit complicated. Costs are assessed pursuant to G.S. 7A-304. The bulk of the money consists of a general court of justice fee of $129.50, of which $127.05 is remitted to the State Treasurer. The remaining amounts are divided among various fees, including a $12 phone systems fee, allocated to the Court Information Technology Fund, $7.50 for law enforcement retirement and insurance benefits, and $2.00 for services, staffing, and operations of the Criminal Justice Education and Standards Commission, the entity that trains and certifies law enforcement officers. You can review the break down of costs and the relevant statutory provisions here.

As you can see, both courts and law enforcement generally benefit from the collection of court costs, but the benefit is far removed from the individual court or agency involved.

That’s all I have to say about that. Aren’t you glad you are not married to me? Please don’t send in a comment to answer that question.

6 comments on “We are NOT Ferguson

  1. I am happily divorced, and plan to stay that way. I too am hard to live with. Shea, all in all I feel you are a good person. Anyway they get paid the ‘tort-feasors’ pay comes from the ‘publics coffers, and the State, Counties, and City governments have all sort of ‘creative means’ of attaining revenue to fill them.

    They separate them to make the appearance of no impropriety or conflicts and most people seem to believe it. ‘I do not’.

    Infractions and the resulting court costs are a huge revenue source and the star chamber like proceedings in the lessor administrative tribunals assure the collections (compliance/ implied consent to be regulated by the commercial motor vehicles code when not engaged in commercial conduct).

  2. I can assure you that law enforcement agencies in this state do not police for the benefit of collecting revenue. In regards to whether municipal and county governing bodies attempt to do so is a matter of debate. An example that seems to suggest that they do is when traffic red light cameras originally became legal. Almost all cities participated and were able to collect quite the revenue from it. When the NC Court of Appeals (NC Supreme refused to hear it) ruled that around 90% of the fines collected had to go to the schools, most cities removed the cameras when the program suddenly went from a black budget item to a red one. Now they are bringing them back under some rather questionable procedures in an attempt to get around the court’s decision. Fayetteville is bringing the cameras back in July and the fine money is going to the local school system (Cumberland County) and then the school system has agreed to give part of the money back to the city. This procedure was authorized by the General Assembly Session Law 2014-84 (House Bill 1151) for Fayetteville, NC. How this is even remotely Constitutional is beyond my comprehension, but we shall see when it gets challenged.

    It is my opinion that law enforcement should for the most part be revenue neutral or in the negative. I would like to point out that under the current law for court cost collection, $5 does go to the individual agency involved in writing (serving) the citation. Of course that $5 fee does little to offset the costs associated with paying officers to attend court and other fees associated with traffic enforcement (ex radar costs, training, certification, maintenance, gas etc).

  3. So, where exactly would one go to find out how much of the $5 that is allowed to go back to the law enforcement agencies from court costs makes it to the agencies?

  4. Even after the unified court system, there still is a split as municipalities are issuing speeding tickets and other traffic charges based on city ordinances that are in conflict with GS: 160A-174(b)(6) Which reads…G.S. 160a

    174
    Page
    1
    Article 8.
    Delegation and Exercise of the General Police Power.
    § 160A

    174. General ordinance

    making power.
    (b) A city ordinance shall be consistent with the Constitution and laws of North
    Carolina and of the United States. An ordinance is not consistent with State or federal law when…
    (6)
    The elements of an offense defined by a city ordinance are identical to the
    elements of an offense defined by State or federal law.
    So, isn’t speeding and running a stop sign already against a state statute? But, municipalities are using this as a revenue collection tool. Raleigh got caught, exposed, and then repealed their traffic ordinances.

    Yes, I read the old stuff too: http://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/local-government-authority-to-regulate-traffic/

  5. […] on to proposing a “statewide Commission on Criminal Fees.” Regular readers will recall Shea’s previous post explaining that few of the most widely condemned practices used in Ferguson are replicated here in […]

  6. […] named as one of the states that has come under recent scrutiny. See footnote 1 of the letter. In a previous post, my colleague Shea Denning described North Carolina’s uniform court system and the fines and […]

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