Bumpy ride for seat-belt law
QUEARY; The Associated Press
All over the state, Washington's seat-belt law is under attack from
defense lawyers armed with an obscure constitutional argument that
could wind up in the state Supreme Court this year.
But the real fight is about the conflict between the safety benefits
of mandatory belt use and law enforcement's new power to hit the lights
and the siren when they see an unused buckle dangling above a driver's
In June 2002, the 1986 law that required Washington drivers and passengers
to wear seat belts got some teeth. Instead of issuing a citation only
after a stop for another reason, police could pull drivers over if
they spotted someone beltless in the car.
The Washington State Patrol and other agencies mounted aggressive
enforcement campaigns, called "Click it or ticket," and
belt usage skyrocketed to 93 percent, among the highest rates in the
country, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
In its first year, officers stopped more than 170,000 violators and
issued more than 84,000 tickets for seat-belt and child-restraint
violations, compared to about 50,000 tickets the previous year.
But among the routine $86 tickets (the price went up to $101 last
month) officers also found wanted criminals, the pungent smell of
pot, the bleary eyes of drunk drivers and the cold gleam of illegal
firearms. Hundreds of criminal arrests resulted. State troopers alone
issued more than 12,000 criminal citations after traffic stops in
the new law's first year, according to State Patrol statistics.
Defense attorneys like Sue Goolsbee found themselves with clients
such as Trevor Eckblad, a convicted felon caught with a firearm during
a seat-belt stop.
"One of the passengers didn't have a seat belt on so the officer
stopped them," Goolsbee said. "Once they stopped them they
said they could smell marijuana in the car. Once you smell marijuana
you get to search the car, so they looked through the car and found
Goolsbee, a public defender in Skagit County, went looking for grounds
to get the evidence thrown out.
A colleague pointed her to a district court case in Pacific County,
where an attorney had successfully challenged a seat-belt ticket by
arguing that the entire seat-belt law was unconstitutionally vague,
even though it had previously stood unchallenged for more than 15
Why? Because the law refers to the complex federal codes that dictate
which vehicles must be equipped with seat belts - codes the court
said weren't readily available to citizens.
A similar challenge forced revision of the state's motorcycle helmet
law a few years ago.
Goolsbee's challenge succeeded in Skagit County Superior Court Judge
Susan Cook's courtroom, and Eckblad is at least temporarily free while
prosecutors appeal. The local prosecuting attorney directed police
not to enforce the law within the county's borders.
A similar challenge in Snohomish County also was successful, and others
are percolating in courthouses around the state, said Pam Loginsky,
a staff attorney for the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
For Loginsky and other supporters of the law, the notion that the
statute is vague is nonsense. After all, the seat belt is sitting
there in pretty much every vehicle built since about 1970.
"It gets frustrating when you're seeing something that really
does save lives," Loginsky said. "The people who would wear
seat belts anyway aren't going to be deterred by this."
Goolsbee shrugs off that argument, saying an unconstitutional law
is just that and should be fixed.
"All they have to do is rewrite the law down in Olympia and that's
the end of it," she said.
But there's also a larger movement afoot, sparked by resentment of
the tougher seat-belt law.
A citizens initiative dubbed "Click it-Stick it!" came up
well short. Organizers collected only 30,000 of the 200,000 required
to put it on the November ballot. But they gathered hundreds of kindred
spirits to the cause, said Roy Ruffino, the president of the Washington
"The more tickets they write, the more supporters I get,"
The group is now targeting the legal challenges, providing a how-to
guide on its Web site and looking hopefully to the high court to toss
out the law entirely. The justices have asked for briefs on the case,
but haven't decided whether to hear it yet. Oral arguments would be
this fall at the earliest.
Overturning the law would likely force the issue back into the Legislature,
where the ability to stop drivers for not wearing a required seat
belt passed by a narrow margin. Opposition was led by an unusual mixture
of Republicans and Democrats who protested increased intrusion into
Ruffino, who argues that the civil liberties aspect of the bill went
largely undiscussed, hopes to persuade lawmakers to reconsider.
For advocates of the seat-belt law and its safety benefits, this is
an alarming development. In the first seven months of this year, 206
vehicle occupants died in traffic accidents, according to preliminary
numbers from the safety commission. That's compared to 293 in the
same period in 2002, before the tougher law went into effect.
"I would say that we're down 90 lives in a one-year period,"
said Jonna VanDyk, a spokeswoman for the safety commission.
On the Net:
• Washington Traffic Safety Commission: www.wa.gov/wtsc
• Washington Seatbelt Coalition: www.clickitstickit.com