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Jail Term for a Seatbelt Violation?

Almost all residents of New Jersey are aware that New Jersey adopted a law, N.J.S.A. 39:3-76.2f, mandating the use of seat belts in 1984. Under that statute, the penalty for a driver not wearing a seat belt or for a driver not requiring the front seat passenger to wear a seat belt has been a relatively minor fine of $20.00.

Until now. In a September 18, 2014 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, State v. Lenihan, the Court ruled that the failure by a driver to require a passenger to wear a seat belt, coupled with another violation may result in the driver being prosecuted for a crime of the third degree.

The facts in Lenihan were that on August 10, 2007, 18 year old Kirby Lenihan was driving a car with a minor front seat passenger identified in the case as K.G. There was evidence that Lenihan had inhaled difluoroethane to get high. Lenihan’s car went off the road and struck a guardrail then hit a sign post. Neither Lenihan nor K.G. were wearing seatbelts. Both were hospitalized with K.G. passing away the next day.

The Court ruled that the failure of Lenihan to require K.G. to wear a seat belt together with the fact that Lenihan may have been high allowed the Sussex County Prosecutor to charge the driver with a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18. That statute says it is a third-degree crime when a person “knowingly violates a law intended to protect the public health and safety or knowingly fails to perform a duty imposed by a law intended to protect the public health and safety and recklessly causes serious bodily injury.” A crime of the third degree carries a fine of not more than $15,000.00 and a term of imprisonment of 3 to 5 years. In Lenihan, the Court found that Lenihan violated the Seat Belt Law which was intended to protect the public health and safety and acted recklessly by operating a motor vehicle while high thus committing a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18. It appears that there were concerns that the Prosecutor may not have been able to obtain a conviction for vehicular homicide and allowed Lenihan to enter a guilty plea to the charge of N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18. The trial judge imposed a three-year term of supervised probation conditioned upon serving 180 days in the Sussex County jail. Lenihan appealed the charge and the sentence. The Supreme Court upheld both the conviction and the sentence.

It is not the intent of this article to debate the wisdom of the Court’s decision in Lenihan, but rather to bring to the attention of the motoring public that the failure to wears seat belts may be far more than a simple motor vehicle violation-it may be criminal. Best advice-Wear your seat belt and make sure your passengers do the same.

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