Seatbelt campaign could land in state Supreme Court


by Jeff Switzer
King County Journal Reporter

Olympia, WA - Though it's wildly successful ``click it or ticket'' campaign has put Washington on the national map, judges in three different counties have now ruled the mandatory seat belt law unconstitutional.

The issue will likely end up before the state Supreme Court, leaving the validity of seat belt tickets in question.

News of the rulings coincides with the first anniversary of the seat belt safety campaign, which claims credit for saving lives and prompting drivers to buckle up.

In that year, state troopers alone stopped 106,774 seat belt violators, writing 84,619 tickets and giving the rest oral or written warnings.

Partly as a result, Washington has an estimated 93 percent compliance, the highest reported in the country.

The 2002 law allowed state and local police to stop a car and write an $86 ticket if the driver was seen without a properly fastened seat belt. Under the previous law, adopted in 1986, police could write tickets for shunning a seat belt, but the traffic stop had to be for another reason.

The judges' rulings against the seat belt law saddened John Moffat, director of the state Traffic Safety Commission.

``It's a perfectly good safety law,'' he said. He called the ``hyper-technical'' court arguments silly.

``The essence of the argument is that the average person can't understand the seat belt law. Which part of `click it or ticket' do you not understand?'' Moffat asked.

``We cannot afford to lose this law.''

Most recently, a judge in Snohomish County rejected the law last Friday. Pacific and Skagit county judges also have invalidated the measure as unconstitutional. More cases are reportedly pending in Kitsap and Spokane counties.

In some cases, those traffic stops turned up a drunken driver, a felon with a gun or someone driving with a suspended license. Throwing out the seat belt infraction suppressed those offenses in court.

In Snohomish County, the public defender successfully argued that the law improperly cites vague federal motor vehicle standards. A similar flaw doomed an earlier version of the state's motorcycle helmet law.

After the Snohomish County decision, State Patrol Capt. Glenn Cramer told The (Everett) Herald newspaper, ``Certainly, we respect the court's decision.''

But he added: ``We believe this is a public safety issue, and we will continue with our enforcement practice.''

Seat belt tickets can still be written in other counties unless the law is thrown out by a superior court, an appellate court or the state Supreme Court.

Snohomish County prosecutors plan to appeal the ruling, and Skagit County might take the question straight to the state Supreme Court.

Jonathan Rands, 29, a deputy public defender in Skagit County District Court, wants to argue the case. He was one of two lawyers who researched what he called the faulty law.

```Click it or ticket' may be common sense to you or I, but it doesn't meet the constitutional muster of giving fair notice,'' Rands said. ``It doesn't point to the statute, the black letter of the law that you have to wear a seat belt.''

The seat belt law is flawed in the same way the 1994 helmet law was flawed, Rands said. That law was tossed out and later rewritten by the Legislature.

Given that history, the Legislature should have known better and written a better seat belt law, Rands said.

Rands had one case dismissed last month, and now has 15 to 20 on the line to be dismissed, pending new arguments raised by the state.

But Moffat said the federal rules are not obscure. A Google Internet search for ``federal motor vehicle safety standard 208'' immediately pulls up the rules cited in Washington's seat belt law, Moffat said.

If the case reaches the state Court of Appeals as expected, Moffat said his agency is exploring joining the lawsuit on behalf of the state.

``In the event it is declared unconstitutional, we'll be back up to the state Legislature in January and have a new seat belt law,'' Moffat said.

In addition to the legal argument, the Washington Seatbelt Coalition, which is sponsoring an initiative to overturn the new law, questions the use of quotas by some police agencies to get federal grant money.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Jeff Switzer can be reached at or 425-453-4234.


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