By Candace Kelley
Click it or ticket. It used to be the most that could happen if you drove down the highway without a seat belt was that you got a $20 traffic ticket — plus court fines for violating the 1984 seat belt law.
But be warned — under a recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision, if you don’t wear you seat belt or require minor passengers to wear one, criminal charges could be filed against you. The decision stems from a case in Sussex County where the driver was huffing fumes from aerosol cans and didn’t tell her passenger to wear a seat belt.
After the pair got into an accident, the passenger died and the driver went to jail for six months. She was charged with vehicular homicide and with recklessly causing a death while violating the seat belt law — both second-degree offenses that carry prison terms of five to 10 years.
Judge F. Michael Giles served on the bench for 18 years as a Superior Court Judge in Essex County’s Criminal Division. He says the public should be informed about how courts are now looking at drivers who don’t buckle up.
“The court found that the seat belt statute, which is essentially a violation of the traffic laws of the state of New Jersey, can be extended in certain circumstances,” said Giles.
Chandra Cole is the Chief Prosecutor in Irvington.
“If you violate that law and as a result it’s foreseeable that something worse could happen, absolutely, I think that threshold should be upheld,” said Cole.
She is especially shocked when parents come to court for not buckling up their children.
“The car screams at you, tell you to put your seat belt on,” Cole said.
The Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the seat belt law was created no only to protect individuals but the community at large.
And that was key for the judges. New Jerseyans are now on notice that if they knowingly violate a law that is intended to protect public’s health and safety or fail to follow the law, if that act involves some recklessness and results in injury or death, they could get locked up.
And the court didn’t stop there.
“In this case the seat belt law was analogized to violations of building codes, environmental codes,” said Giles.
The judge says determinations are made on a case by case basis. Meanwhile, this chief prosecutor thinks everyone should be wearing their seat belts anyway. It’s the law.
“I hope that this will encourage others to put on their seat belts on, because it could save a life,” said Cole.
Not only the driver’s life, she says, but everyone else’s on the road.