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Seatbelt Violations Can Be Criminal

November 24, 2014 | Posted In Criminal Law

The state Supreme Court is cracking down on drivers who either refuse to wear seatbelts or fail to make their passengers wear them while traveling in their vehicles, criminal law firms in New Jersey report. Citizens should be aware that a recent court ruling will make not wearing a seatbelt a criminal offense if there is an accident that results in a serious injury or death.

Although New Jersey has had a Mandatory Seatbelt Usage Law in place for the last 30 years, its enforcement has not always been taken seriously and has not been enacted across the board. The state Supreme Court’s ruling emphasized the “broad scope” of the law in making it a crime to fail to wear a seatbelt.

In one instance, two lower courts ruled that people who do not wear seatbelts can be held responsible for a predicate offense under N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18. This statute makes it a criminal act to recklessly and knowingly violate a law “intended to protect the public health and safety” and cause injury to another person. The state Supreme Court agreed that the seatbelt law falls under the category of a “public health and safety” mandate.

The Case at Issue

In 2007, Kirby Lenihan, then 18, crashed into a guardrail on Route 519 after she lost control of her vehicle. She was seriously injured and her 16-year-old passenger K.G. died on impact. Neither was wearing a seatbelt at the time. Police found evidence that both Lenihan and K.G. had been “huffing” or getting high off propellants in aerosol dust remover and carpet deodorizer cans just before the accident. Lenihan’s blood sample confirmed traces of 1,1-Diflouoethane, one of the dust remover compounds.

Lenihan was charged with driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, and failure to both wear a seatbelt and make K.G. wear one. She was indicted for second-degree vehicular homicide, as well as second-degree violation of 2C:40-18. The teen pleaded guilty to reckless cause of serious bodily injury and a third-degree violation of a public safety law.  She served 180 days in jail and three years of probation. She appealed the criminal charges, claiming that the statute was vague and ambiguous and was not meant to make a minor driving mistake a criminal offense.

When the New Jersey Supreme Court heard her appeal, they ruled in favor of criminal charges. This is not the first time the state Supreme Court has made a ruling to highlight the importance of seatbelts, and the justices noted their previous decisions in their statements. In the 1998 case of Waterson v. General Motors, the state Supreme Court wrote that seatbelts “may be the most significant source of automobile crash protection for automobile occupants.”

Call an Attorney Today

Driving without your seatbelt may be an accident or a harmless mistake, but the Supreme Court’s ruling makes it a potential criminal offense with harsh penalties and repercussions. If you are facing criminal charges for failing to wear your seatbelt, contact an attorney at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, a criminal law firm in New Jersey, right away. 

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