TAR HEEL VIEW: Stopped-bus bill prizes cash over criminal charges

The good news: A bill awaiting Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature found the solution to the most legally dubious aspect of using automated camera systems to enforce traffic laws.

The bad news: Weak language makes it a mere suggestion, not the ironclad requirement it should be.

Senate Bill 55, which allows school systems to install bus-mounted cameras and issue fines for passing stopped school buses, cleared the House on a 74-33 vote after sailing through the Senate by a 46-3 margin.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, says school bus cameras could save lives by deterring drivers from speeding past buses while children are boarding or disembarking. Alleged violators will be assessed hefty fines — $400 for the first offense, $750 for the second and $1,000 for third and subsequent offenses.

It remains unclear, however, whether school bus cameras will be positioned to record drivers’ faces or whether they’ll only capture license plates. If it’s the latter, officials will know whose car passed a stopped bus, but not who was driving it.

For that reason, the bill allows counties to adopt ordinances allowing civil enforcement. Registered owners will be held responsible when their cars are caught on camera. The civil offenses are not considered crimes or even traffic infractions and result in no driver license points.

Vehicle owners who receive the fines can contest them on the grounds that they were not behind the wheel when the offense occurred — if they accuse another driver and provide his or her name and address.

That framework seems to make bus-mounted cameras similar to red-light camera systems that catch cars, but not drivers. We’ve criticized those as a slipshod approach to law enforcement whose proprietors care more about shaking down vehicle owners for cash than determining who broke the law.

SB 55, however, expresses a preference for cameras that identify drivers instead of equipment that merely scans license plates.

“The General Assembly of North Carolina encourages criminal prosecution for violation of (General Statute) 20-217 whenever photographs or videos recorded by an automated school bus safety camera provide evidence sufficient to support such prosecution,” the bill states.

Placing someone’s car at the scene doesn’t cut the mustard for a criminal charge. Prosecutors must prove a defendant’s guilt, not merely pinpoint the presence of an inanimate object registered to him or her.

Passing a stopped school bus is a Class 1 misdemeanor, and striking a pedestrian after making the illegal pass is a Class I felony.

Legislators are leaving it up to private companies that sell motion-activated camera systems to decide whether or not criminals will be held accountable. Isn’t that the General Assembly’s job?

If bill sponsors wanted to ensure criminal enforcement, not merely “encourage” it, they could have required that devices be designed and programmed to identify drivers. Seems like a no-brainer to us.

Are school bus cameras really about protecting children, or is their true purpose — like their red-light camera cousins — to cast a wide dragnet and rake in revenue?

The Wilson Times