Seat belt law declared unconstitutional - State Patrol to keep issuing tickets for now

By Jim Haley
Everett Herald Writer

Snohomish County, WA - A 2001 law requiring everyone riding in a motor vehicle to wear a seat belt was declared unconstitutional Friday by a Snohomish County Superior Court judge.

That doesn't mean people should stop clicking their seat belts, for safety reasons and because some law agencies are likely to continue issuing $86 tickets for those caught unbelted, law agencies and lawyers said.

"Certainly, we respect the court's decision," said Capt. Glenn Cramer of the Washington State Patrol in Olympia. "We believe this is a public safety issue, and we will continue with our enforcement practice."

The ruling by Judge Ronald Castleberry will be appealed by the Snohomish County prosecutor, said Seth Fine, who handles appeals for the office. It won't set a precedent unless an appeals court upholds the decision.

Local police agencies were not immediately able to say whether they would continue enforcing the law, which has resulted in tens of thousands of infraction tickets statewide since it went into effect in July 2001.

A big "click it or ticket" campaign began in 2002.

Mark Roe, chief Snohomish County criminal deputy prosecutor, said senior members of his office will discuss the issue next week and decide whether to send out an advisory notice to local law agencies.

"The law probably saves lives and is certainly a useful tool for law enforcement," Roe said.

Police sometimes use the law to stop vehicles and end up making felony arrests. Sometimes, drugs and other contraband are discovered in a car that has been stopped.

That was the situation in the case Castleberry dismissed Friday. The judge ruled that a state trooper didn't have a legitimate reason to stop a car simply because the driver and passenger were not wearing seat belts.

Officers found drugs and guns in the car, and charged the driver with illegal possession of a controlled substance.

Public defender Marybeth Dingledy argued that the drugs and other evidence should be suppressed because police did not have a good reason to stop the car. No good reason existed, she reasoned, because the seat belt law is unconstitutional.

Dingledy argued that the law uses vague language that refers to federal motor vehicle safety standards. Those standards, which do not apply to all vehicles, are hard to find and difficult to interpret, she argued.

Castleberry agreed, but implied that the Legislature can easily fix the problem.

He compared the seat belt law to the original motorcycle helmet law, which was struck down because of a similar vague reference to a federal vehicle safety standard. The Legislature easily corrected the law, Castleberry said.

"It may very well be that with this version of the seat belt law, the Legislature may choose to correct any deficiencies that are present in the law," the judge said in his ruling.

Susan Gaer, assistant director of the public defender's office, said Dingledy had a good argument.

"An average citizen would have to hire an attorney to know what the law is," she said.

Fine disagreed.

"I don't think any reasonable person would have difficulty understanding the seat belt law. If you have a seat belt, you use it," Fine said. "That's really all the law says."

Although Roe doesn't agree with Castleberry's reasoning this time, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor said the judge is "a smart man and a good judge, and we have to look carefully at the things he says. That does not mean he's right."

Castleberry isn't the only judge who has come up with a similar ruling.

In Pacific County south of Olympia, a District Court judge also found the seat belt law unconstitutional, Castleberry said. In Skagit County, Superior Court Judge Susan Cook issued a ruling similar to Castleberry's on May 15.


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