New Jersey Supreme Court to Hear Case on Seat Belt Violations

New Jersey Supreme Court to Hear Case on Seat Belt Violations

On August 10th, 2007, an 18-year-old girl lost control of her car in Hampton Township.  Crashing into a guardrail, the driver wound up seriously injured.  And her 16-year-old passenger ended up dead.

Subsequent investigation turned up cans of aerosol dust remover and carpet deodorizer in the car—and the driver’s blood tested positive for a related chemical—suggesting that the occupants of the car were engaged in so-called “huffing.”  But, most relevant to a court case that has now risen to the New Jersey Supreme Court, was that neither the driver nor the passenger was wearing a seat belt.

The driver was charged and indicted for a number of crimes.  But she eventually came to a plea agreement where she pled guilty on two counts: recklessly causing serious bodily injury and a third-degree violation of New Jersey Statute 2C:40-18.

This law forms the core of the case at hand, State v. Lenihan.  The statute prohibits “knowingly violat[ing] a law intended to protect the public health and safety” through reckless conduct that injures another.  The prosecutor in this case conceptualized not wearing a seat belt (the defendant here was also charged with the passenger’s failure to wear the belt) as falling under the broad language of this law.

The attorney for the driver disagreed.  He said that, in using this statute to cover seat belts, the state “grabs an unreasonably wide discretion for the prosecutor to be able to elevate all kinds of what would be very minor offenses into indictable offenses.”  He gave an example: what if someone lets a dog loose in violation of a leash law—and that dog bites a pedestrian?  Would that person be a criminal under this statute as well?

The Appellate Division agreed with the prosecutor and held that, looking at the legislative history of the statute, there was nothing to indicate that it was not designed to be as broad as it’s now being used.

It will be up to the Supreme Court of New Jersey to have the last word.

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