Raleigh, N.C. — Drivers who pass a stopped school bus could soon be given a steep fine instead of facing criminal charges under a measure state lawmakers approved Thursday night.
Senate Bill 55 would allow counties to install and use video cameras on school buses to catch drivers who don't obey stop arms. The counties would be allowed to enact non-criminal ordinances to fine a driver $400 for the first offense, $750 for the second and $1,000 for the third.
Boards of education could install the bus cameras themselves or contract with a third-party vendor and could enter into agreements with county commissioners and law enforcement to share the costs and the revenue from the fines.
While the measure "encourages" criminal prosecution whenever the cameras "provide evidence sufficient to support [it]," the new civil penalty would be non-criminal and would carry no license points.
"These things have the potential to save young children’s lives," argued supporter Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake. "You can appeal it if you want to. You’ve got video evidence."
Opponents of the Senate measure, which was never heard in a House committee, say it will allow drivers who can pay the fine to avoid prosecution – an arrangement ruled unconstitutional in an earlier challenge to the long-standing practice of "dismissal on payment of costs."
"The North Carolina Supreme Court said no, you can’t do that," argued Rep. David Rogers, R-Rutherford. "You’re basically buying your way out of prosecution."
Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, a retired police chief, agreed.
"If the evidence is not sufficient to support prosecution, you put it through this other way calling for a lesser standard, and the person gets a civil ticket," said Faircloth, "and the cost of that ticket is probably higher than they would pay if they went to court.
"We shouldn’t be putting law enforcement agencies in position to be arranging sharing in money that comes from citations," he added.
Rep. Greg Murphy, R-Pitt, reminded lawmakers that the program is completely optional for counties.
"It’s not voluntary to the people who will be faced with these fines and penalties," answered Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry. "It recommends criminal prosecution but says you can avoid prosecution by paying this extra money.
"Is it a moneymaker? What are we doing here, and is it really needed?" she asked.
"You say it’s for safety, but it winds up being a cash cow," agreed Rep. Elmer Floyd, D-Cumberland.
Despite the debate, the proposal passed the House easily, 74-33.