States across the nation have seat belt laws in place that make it a requirement for drivers and passengers in vehicles that are being operated on public streets to wear some sort of safety belt. In 1998, 41, 471 people were killed in 6, 334, 000 reported motor vehicle accidents in the United States. Seat belts are estimated to save 9, 500 lives each year, and statistics show a higher degree of seat-belt use in states that aggressively enforce seat belt laws. The laws, as well as the punishments available for violation of the laws vary by state. In most states, however, it is considered a misdemeanor and punishable by a small fine. The properness of an arrest for such violations is a good question and has been addressed by various courts including the Supreme Court.
In North Carolina, the "Click It or Ticket" program was put into place in 1993 by former Governor Jim Hunt to increase safety belt and child safety use rates through stepped up enforcement of the state's safety belt law. According to North Carolina's safety belt law all drivers and front seat passengers over the age of 16 are required to wear safety belts. Children less than age 16 are covered under the North Carolina Child Restraint Law. This law requires that children must be buckled up no matter where they are seated in the vehicle.
Violators of the safety belt law are issued tickets and are subject to a fine of $25 plus $50 court costs. These violations have been defined as "infractions" and are not entered on driving records. In addition to this, effective January 1, 2005, any child less than 8 years old or 80 pounds in weight must ride in a booster seat. Violations of this law will result in a $25 fine plus court costs as well as having 2 points placed against driver's license.
However, drivers cited for this violation of this law for a 5, 6, or 7 year old will be able to have the charges dismissed if they present proof to the court that they have acquired an appropriate restraint for that child. Statistics have been gathered on safety belt use since this program began and has shown that seat belt use has increased from 65 percent to 84 percent. It has also shown that fatal and serious injuries in North Carolina have been cut by 14 percent. Resulting in a savings of at least $135 million in health care related costs. Other positive effects of this program have been: reduced insurance cost statewide, the discovery of criminal offenders, and million of dollars have been given to local school districts from the collection of the fines.
When trying to determine whether or not it is proper to put someone in jail for violating the seat belt law courts must examine the state's statutes to determine whether or not an arrest could be deemed a violation of the citizens Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Amendment provides the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. Historically courts have evaluated these cases by first determining if probable cause existed to make the arrest. Next, they look at the reasonableness of the arrest, with reasonableness being measured as an objective standard, not by the arresting officers state of mind. In the case of Dunaway v. New York the court stated that the probable cause standard applies to all arrests, without the need to balance the interests and circumstances involved in a particular situation.
In other words, if and officer arrests an individual whom he or she believes to have committed even a minor crime in his presence there has been no violation committed. The cases of both When v. United States and Dunaway v. New York established that in cases of typical arrests, probable cause is the constitutional standard, and neither more nor less is required to justify a seizure.
When determining the reasonableness of an arrest, courts traditionally evaluate it by balancing the degree of the intrusion on the individual against the degree to which the intrusion is necessary to further a legitimate governmental interest. For an arrest or seizure to be deemed unreasonable, the arrest or seizure must be made in some extraordinary manner which is unusually harmful to the privacy or physical interest of the arrested. Therefore, if an arrest does not include any extraordinary intrusiveness beyond that of a typical arrest or detention it is concluded to be reasonable. When applying these standards of probable cause and reasonableness to the issue of an arrest of a seat belt law violator one must look to the case of Atwater v. City of Largo Vista. This case was argued December 4, 2000 and decided April 24, 2001.
In the case of Atwater v. City of Largo Vista petitioner Gail Atwater was placed under custodial arrest for not wearing a seat belt, which is considered a misdemeanor and carries a fifty-dollar fine as its maximum penalty. The question asked by the petitioner was whether or not the Fourth Amendment limits the use of custodial arrests for fine-only traffic offenses. The United States Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's opinion that Ms. Atwater's arrest was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In order to better understand how this decision was reached several facts of the case were examined.
In this case petitioner Gail Atwater was arrested by an Officer of the Largo Vista Police Department for not having herself or her two children, who were ages three and five, properly restrained. Ms. Atwater was taken directly to the Largo Vista police station, handcuffs were removed, her purse was taken, and the contents inventoried, her eyeglasses were removed and her shoes were taken. She was held alone in a holding cell for about an hour until her hearing was held, a $310 bond was set and she was released. She later plead no contest to the seatbelt misdemeanors and paid a $50 fine. Given her admission that she had violated the law and with the absence of any allegations that she had in any way been harmed or detained inconsistent with the law, the District Court ruled in favor of the City and the Supreme Court affirmed this decision.
The main argument that Ms. Atwater raised regarding her arrest was that she should have not been arrested for a fine only violation. In the Atwater Brief, Atwater's attorneys made the claim that the Fourth Amendment was in place to provide a balance and check system with regards to the discretion of officers of government. Her attorneys, using the Encyclopedia of the Laws of England, claimed that the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony at common law was that, unlike a felony, an arrest could not be made for a misdemeanor unless it was an ongoing breach of the peace. However, the state of Texas authorizes police officers to arrest a person "found committing a violation" of the statutes that were involved here. It also states that after the arrest, the officer can choose to release the person arrested if the person makes "a written promise to appear in court" or can have the person "immediately taken before a magistrate"' who has jurisdiction and who "is nearest or most accessible to the place of arrest" for the purpose of determining the collateral necessary to secure the person's appearance before trial.
After review the court determined that the Fourth Amendment does not forbid a warrant less arrest for a minor criminal offense, such as a misdemeanor seatbelt violation punishable only by a fine. The court held that a serious problem for Atwater's historical argument is posed by various statutes enacted by Parliament well before this Republic's founding that authorized peace officers to make warrant less arrests for all sorts of relatively minor offenses unaccompanied by violence, including, among others, night walking, unlawful game-playing, profane cursing, and negligent carriage-driving. The Supreme Court has acknowledged that the court has had little to say about warrant less misdemeanor arrest authority; however in what little they have said they have focused on the circumstance that an offense was committed in the officer's presence, to the omission of any reference to a breach of the peace limitation. It has been determined by the Supreme Court that it is proper to arrest someone for a violation of a seat belt law if it has been violated in the presence of an officer. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have statutes that permit warrant less misdemeanor arrests by at least some peace officers without requiring any breach of the peace. Because The "Click it or Ticket" program in North Carolina has served as a model for the nation and the Presidential Initiative for Increasing safety belt use Nationwide highly recommends that other communities adopt this program it appears as though safety belt laws will continue to exist for years to come..