Criminal Conviction for Failing to Wear a Seat Belt in New Jersey

This Article courtesy of Randolph Wolf, Esq.

A recent decision by the Appellate Division, in State v. Lenihan, A-4667-10, held that failing to wear a seat belt can support a criminal conviction, if supported by aggravating factors. In the case, an 18-year old driver and her 16-year old passenger crashed into a guardrail. Neither was wearing a seat belt. The 18-year old driver was seriously injured and the 16-year old passenger was killed. Police suspected that the teenagers had been huffing aerosol dust remover immediately before the accident.

The driver was indicted on charges that included second-degree violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18 for recklessly causing the passenger’s death. See 2C:40-18 (making one who “knowingly violates a law intended to protect the public health and safety” is guilty of a crime if he or she acts recklessly and injures another.”). The State argued that, by failing to wear a seat belt in violation of the Passenger Automobile Seat Belt Usage Act of 1984, which made seat belts mandatory, the defendant knowingly violated a law intended to protect the public health and safety.

Although the driver’s attorney moved to dismiss the count, the Sussex County Superior Court denied the motion. Under a plea agreement, the driver plead guilty to third-degree violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18 and was sentenced to three years’ probation and 180 days’ imprisonment. That sentence was stayed pending the defendant’s appeal of the Superior Court judge’s denial of her motion to dismiss the indictment.

On appeal , the Appellate Division noted that N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18 was rarely, if ever, used by prosecutors. The court, however, found that the defendant’s conduct did, in fact, violate that statute as the seat belt law constituted a law “intended to protect the public health and safety.”

This new holding is worrisome as it gives new powers to prosecutors. N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18 is broad. The statute gives definition as to what laws are intended to protect public health or safety and prosecutors may take advantage of that.