By Bradley D. Myerson
February 28, 2018
A recent newspaper editorial supporting legislation giving Vermont police the ability to stop motorists solely for not wearing a seatbelt, known as "Primary Enforcement", ignores the serious threat to civil liberties if the Bill were to become law.
The editorial naively suggests it unlikely that squads of police would suddenly go out and pull people over who weren't wearing seatbelts. This shows a complete lack of understanding about what is happening on our highways. For example, police already use roadblocks to stop hundreds of cars to see if people are wearing their seatbelts. In my experience as a criminal defense attorney, frivolous motor vehicle stops by police without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing have become far too frequent. Driving in Vermont after 10:00 p.m., is practically an invitation to be pulled over and to provide a roadside breath sample. Motorists are stopped for such foolish excuses as traveling less than 5 m.p.h. over the speed limit, or for traveling below the speed limit, failing to use a turn signal when leaving a parking lot in the early morning hours where there are no other cars on the road, or using a turn signal less than 100 feet before changing direction. My defense colleagues would be happy to provide many more such examples.
This misguided Bill exemplifies our evolution from the Green Mountain State to the Blue Light State. Primary seat belt enforcement is simply a pretext to give police even more excuses to get into your car and to conduct a warrantless search. This law would also more heavily burden lower income motorists, who could ill afford to pay fines and surcharges for a violation, or to lose a day of work to go to Court to contest the charge. It is reasonable to assume that Criminal Court calendars will become even further congested as there will be a flood of new motor vehicle stops (and resulting searches) to be litigated over failure to wear a seatbelt. It would not be too farfetched to expect there will be motorists facing seatbelt charges who were stopped at night because the officer might guess (or imagine) that the driver was not wearing a seatbelt.
Getting more drivers to wear safety belts is certainly a laudable goal, but giving police unfettered authority to stop cars under a Primary Enforcement Bill goes too far. By way of analogy, if police stopped and searched every vehicle and train entering or leaving Vermont, the flow of illegal drugs through the State might be reduced. However, do we want to live in a society that would tolerate that level of government intrusion into our daily lives? If you disagree, please contact your Legislator and tell him or her to vote against any Primary Seatbelt Enforcement Bill.