Bumpy ride for seat-belt law

PAUL QUEARY; The Associated Press
News Tribune


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 shoulder.

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 this gun."

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 years.

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 Seatbelt Coalition.

"The more tickets they write, the more supporters I get," Ruffino said.

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 drivers' lives.

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


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