RALEIGH — Call it what you want, but that $50 collected for an improper equipment offense is a fine and must revert to public schools and not to a state fund for inmate costs, the state Court of Appeals said in a ruling Tuesday.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel specifically affects Richmond County schools, but could be applied statewide, the attorney for the schools said.
“The bottom line is this: Whether it’s a small amount, medium or large, this money belongs to the school children of Richmond County,” attorney George Crump said. “That’s who deserves it and that’s who needs it.”
The state Constitution says the “clear proceeds” of all fines, penalties and forfeitures collected for breaking the law belong to counties and must be used only for maintaining public schools.
In 2011, legislators passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which sent the $50 charge for improper equipment to the State Confinement Fund, which pays counties to house some misdemeanor offenders in their jails. An improper equipment violation is a non-moving violation that includes problems such as dangerous tires or a broken speedometer or muffler.
“We are mindful that the General Assembly has affixed the label ‘cost’ to this surcharge, suggesting that it is remedial,” the Appeals Court wrote. But the charge is a fine, not a cost, because the money isn’t used to reimburse the state for expenses that develop from improper equipment violations and instead goes toward housing prisoners, the court wrote.
Richmond County has contributed $260,000 from the violations to the state fund through April 2015, said Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, one of the chief sponsors of the law in 2011. Statewide, the figure is more than $43 million, he said.
Legislators now will have to throw this into their budget discussions, he said. “Obviously, we didn’t anticipate it,” he said. “We thought the legal standing was firm, but the court feels otherwise.”
Legislators have passed three extensions for the budget, which was supposed to be in place July 1. The latest temporary spending measure expires Sept. 18.
The case began when Crump represented a client in court on an improper equipment charge. Crump, the attorney for the Richmond County Board of Education, thought the money should go to the schools.
When he learned that the money was going to a state fund instead, he told the Richmond County board, which decided to sue, he said.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper said his office hasn’t decided whether to appeal. Because the decision was unanimous, the state Supreme Court doesn’t have to consider the case even if the state does appeal.
The Appeals Court decision affirms a ruling from a trial court judge. Crump said the decision is limited to Richmond County but the principle applies statewide.