It has long been the law in New Jersey that a driver must ensure that his or her passengers “buckle up.” Thanks to a recent decision by our state’s Supreme Court, that law may now serve as the basis for a conviction of a second degree crime in the right (or wrong) case.
In August of 2007, 18-year-0ld Kirby Lenihan was driving after midnight on a rainy night, with her friend in the passenger seat. Apparently under the influence of substances related to “huffing” aerosols, Ms. Lenihan veered off the road at an admittedly high rate of speed and crashed, causing severe injuries to herself and to her 16-year-0ld passenger. Ms. Lenihan survived the crash. Sadly, her passenger did not.
Ms. Lenihan was indicted for, among other things, knowingly violating any law “intended to protect the public safety” and recklessly causing serious bodily injury or death. The law Ms. Lenihan was alleged to have knowingly violated was the Mandatory Seat Belt law, which required her to ensure that her passenger was buckled up. Since the passenger died, Ms. Lenihan faced a possible second degree crime charge, carrying a sentence of 5-10 years.
Ms. Lenihan argued that the seat belt law was not geared toward protecting the public at large, such as a fire/building code or pollution law might be. Further, she argued that the statute was unconstitutionally vague, since she could not have known that violating a minor traffic law could result in a ten-year custodial prison sentence.
Our courts at all three levels, including the Supreme Court, upheld the conviction, rejecting all of Ms. Lenihan’s arguments.
Thanks to a plea, Ms. Lenihan will only spend 180 days in county jail, followed by three years of supervised probation. However, her tale is cautionary. If the seat belt law is a predicate offense, why not the law regarding speed limits? What about yielding the right of way? Even if Ms. Lenihan hadn’t been “huffing,” might she have been tried and convicted just because she admitted to speeding?
Eager prosecutors may say these should all be predicate offenses. So be safe out there. And buckle up.