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No Seat Belt Can Be A Crime Under Recent New Jersey Supreme Court Decision


Date: November 10, 2014

Mostly, drivers think that the maximum penalty they will face for failure to wear a seat belt is a $20 traffic ticket but under a recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision, a person can have to face criminal charges and a prison term under specific circumstances for failing to wear a seat belt.

The Supreme Court said that an infraction of the state’s seat-belt law, a $20 ticket can be used as one of the elements in a criminal law that can expose a person to serve prison for up to 10 years.

The law will make it a crime for any individual who violates the law intentionally that is implemented to make the public safe and it will also be considered as a crime if an individual fails to perform a duty imposed by law to make the public health safe, if that action or failure to act involves some recklessness and results in injury or death of any other individual.

The opinion was issued by the State’s highest court in September in a Sussex county case.

The lawyer for the defendant in that case, Kirby Lenihan, argued that the state’s seat belt law did not come in the category of violations that can be used as an element to proceed with such a criminal prosecution. Lawyer Gregory A. Kraemer argued that the criminal law only intended to include violations of fire and building codes, pollution controls or other laws created to make the community at large safe from harm.

The Supreme Court didn’t agree and it was said that the state’s seat belt law is “clearly intended to protect the public health and safety”, and a violation of it can be used to support a criminal conviction under the other law.

Patrick Sheehan, an assistant Ocean County prosecutor who oversees the prosecutor’s fatal accident team said, “It means you have to wear your seat belt”.

Point Pleasant lawyer John Menzel, past chairman of the New Jersey Bar Association’s municipal court practice section said, “This case now indicates that what would normally be considered a minor offense may now be elevated to a very serious crime”.

On 10th of August 2007, Lenihan was driving her motor vehicle on a rainy day in Hampton Township. Lenihan was 18-year-old at the time and had a 16-year-old riding in the motor vehicle.

At one point, she veered onto the shoulder of the road, hit a guardrail and hit a sign post on the side of the road. They both were wearing seat belts and both sustained life-threatening injuries. They were taken to a hospital, where the passenger died the next day, according to the court documents.

Police found 2 aerosol cans, a dust remover and a carpet deodorizer, both containing the chemical difluoroethane, in Lenihan’s motor vehicle. The carpet deodorizer was missing its cap and nozzle, which led an investigating officer to conclude that the cans were being used to get high in a process called as “huffing”.

Blood sample was taken for testing which showed the presence of difluoroethane.

Lenihan was charged with vehicular homicide and recklessly causing a death while violating the seat belt law, both second-degree offenses carrying prison terms of five to 10 years.

The seat-belt offense was downgraded in a plea bargain to a third-degree offense, carrying a maximum jail time of 5 years to which Lenihan pleaded guilty. The vehicular homicide charge was dismissed and she was sentenced to 3 years of probation conditioned upon serving 180 days in prison.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled on the statute, Sheehan now expects using the statute to charge someone in accident cases where someone is hurt or killed and there is “a divergence of medical opinion on whether there are enough (drugs or alcohol) in the system to be driving under the influence”.

Menzel said that the law has been explained. He could see it extending to other violations of laws that are created for promoting public safety like driving without headlights or taillights, riding a motorcycle without a helmet or with a passenger who isn’t wearing a helmet, or using a mobile while driving motor vehicle. “It gives the state an alternate theory to criminalize conduct”.

News Source: www.TheDailyJournal.com

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About the Author

Attorney James A. Abate practices Criminal Defense, DWI Defense, Business Litigation, Real Estate & Personal injury cases in Union County, New Jersey.