Legislature(2003 - 2004)
03/12/2004 08:00 AM JUD
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SB 316-SEAT BELT VIOLATION AS PRIMARY OFFENSE SENATOR CON BUNDE, sponsor, told members SB 316 requires the enforcement of existing law. Alaska has a statute that requires motorists to wear seat belts when operating a motor vehicle. However, law enforcement cannot enforce that law unless the motorist violates an additional law. He commented: Mr. Chairman, Alaska is, and I join them in this, a pretty Libertarian state, and people say it's my right if I want to put my head through a windshield and scramble my brains I ought to be able to do so. And again, that's an interesting trail of logic. If there's a passenger they are required by law, and it's a primary law, to have a seat belt. If there's a young person, there's a substantial penalty if they're not belted in. But we do this kind of thing with the driver that allows them to play a little roulette there. And I would agree that it's the driver's right to scramble their brains if they choose to if it didn't cost the state money. So, to put a little different spin on that old saw, your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. In this case, your right to swing your fist ends where my wallet begins. So, Mr. Chairman, I bring you SB 316. It changes our existing seat belt law from a secondary law to a primary law. As you likely know, that simply means that if you are stopped for another violation and you're not wearing a seat belt, then you're subject to the secondary law. This legislation would say that the police, if they were to observe you operating a motor vehicle without a seat belt, that is a cause to allow them to stop you and enforce Alaska's existing law that you require a seat belt. You will probably hear some testimony from law enforcement officials that say that they have the rear view mirror influence. Somebody will be stopped at a stop sign, stoplight, and they look in their rear view mirror and they see a police car and then they reach over and fasten their seat belt. I am suggesting that if this law were in effect, the primary seat belt law, perhaps they'd do that when they first got in the car and save Alaska and themselves a great deal of money. And let me just go over some of the financial aspects. Obviously, it will save lives. As a pilot I am sure you couldn't imagine operating an aircraft without fastening your seat belt because when vehicles that we are riding in stop, the body that could be in motion would stay in motion and that'd be you and I and we'd go - projected from the vehicle. As a result of this legislation, it's likely that seat belt use will go up about 15 percent and that's a substantial number of lives when we talk about living Alaskans as human beings. We'll also gain federal money if we pass this law. We will receive nearly $4 million to be used for road improvements with the passage of this law - a federal bribe, if you will, for us to entertain this but Alaskans have never been known to turn down free federal money and perhaps we ought not to do that. In addition, there is federal money available for an educational campaign about the importance of wearing seat belts. I don't know what occurred in Fairbanks - perhaps it was statewide, but certainly in the Anchorage area this past fall and winter they had a click-it or ticket campaign and it was a very vigorous campaign encouraging people to wear seat belts. And again, the net result is to save lives, not to gather a few funds from seat belt tickets. The primary seat belt law has saved billions of dollars nationally in related accident costs. As someone with some knowledge of automobiles you understand that wearing a seat belt can protect the most precious part of that vehicle in a crash and that as we operate motor vehicles if we have a seat belt on and there's some sudden event, we're more likely to remain in control of that vehicle because we're belted in rather than sliding across the front seat, losing contact with pedals and steering wheels and that sort of thing. Mr. Chairman, 85 percent of all of the costs in motor vehicle [accidents] are paid for by society through emergency services, medical services, rehabilitation treatment, health and automobile insurance premiums. Every time there unfortunately is an accident, it has impact on your and my insurance premium. The average cost to Alaskans last year of accidents that we weren't involved in was $820. Employers, of course, are impacted by this as well, and we should be cognizant of it. Mr. Chairman, this is a common sense bill. Showing their good judgment, nearly 70 percent of Alaskans support a primary seat belt law and I would ask you, sir, to allow law enforcement to enforce Alaska's laws and pass this bill creating a primary seat belt law. CHAIR SEEKINS said he is constantly surprised at the number of his automobile customers who want their seat belt alarm signals disconnected. SENATOR BUNDE said that raises the point that national highway data shows that adults who wear seat belts positively impact their children and passengers to wear them. CHAIR SEEKINS asked if there is any opposition to this bill. MS. LINDA WILSON, Public Defender Agency, Department of Administration (DOA) said, at first blush, SB 316 appears to be very simple. However, the bill as presented only eliminates section (e) of the statute. Section (b) of that statute requires anyone under 16 riding in a vehicle to wear a seat belt and says that a violation of (b) can be the basis for being stopped. Therefore, Alaska's law is a hybrid: it is a primary law state for riders under 16, but a secondary law state for riders over 16. She pointed out that thirty other states are secondary states. Her primary concern is that changing Alaska's law to a primary law will allow police to stop a vehicle on the basis of a seat belt violation and open the door to "pretextual" stops. More often than not, the people who are stopped are people of color. She advised that although that is not the underlying intent of the bill, it could open the door to profiling and harassment. She noted that the current penalties for violating section (b) are a $15 fine and points against one's license. She suggested increasing the fine instead of changing the law. MR. JOSH FINK, Director of Public Advocacy, Department of Administration, echoed Ms. Wilson's comments and said he supports the concept that everyone should wear seat belts but his concern with SB 316 is twofold. On a practical level, he is concerned that cars with lap seat belts would be stopped regularly. His second and greater concern is that SB 316 will lead to a significant increase in the number of pretextual stops. As a former public defender in the Mat-Su Valley, MR. FINK said he is aware of people who have been stopped for all kinds of things like switching lanes without using a turn signal, and the officers were fairly straightforward about the fact that they were not interested in citing drivers for those offenses, they were more interested in stopping vehicles to further investigate. He expressed concern that allowing the police to stop individuals for not wearing a seat belt is a pretext for stopping individuals for other reasons. He believes that will result in a backlash from the public. He maintained that Alaska is a big government state and this tool may cross the line. SENATOR FRENCH asked Ms. Wilson and Mr. Fink if they are aware of any lawsuit filed by a minority person in civil court alleging harassment by law enforcement officers. MS. WILSON said she and Mr. Fink deal in the criminal world, not the civil world, so if someone were to file a complaint against the police it would be filed with the police department. She pointed out that people of color in Alaska are over-represented in the criminal justice system and believes those statistics warrant some concern. MR. FINK responded that he is not aware of any civil suits either but he is aware of many successful suppression motions on bad stops that were determined to be pretextual stops. He noted that teenagers and minorities are most often stopped. SENATOR FRENCH said he followed the subject of pretextual stops when in law school, which divided the circuit court at that time. He noted: I was aware when it was subsequently resolved in the [U.S.] Supreme Court that pretextual stops really [aren't] the basis now of any legal challenge to a stop, is it? I mean that's been resolved. I think it was a unanimous supreme court decision that said that if there's a legal reason to pull a car over, you don't examine the motives of the officer in making the stop. You simply ask whether or not he had a legal basis for doing what he did. Is that right? MR. FINK replied, "...That is not correct. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that way. Pretextual stops - the prohibition on pretextual stops is still alive in Alaska. The Court of Appeals and our supreme court have indicated that is still a valid basis at the present time." CHAIR SEEKINS maintained that every committee member is concerned about giving a person with the wrong motives the ability to harass someone else but the question is one of balance and safety. He believes enactment of this bill will have a positive effect on the health and safety of people using the highways. However, if the legislature sees the number of pretextual stops flourish, it would most likely contemplate some way to address that problem. He said sometimes the "might happens" stand in the way of good public policy. He questioned how long it would take a police officer to tell which model vehicles have lap seat belts rather than shoulder harnesses. In response to Chair Seekins' comment that the legislature would be concerned if harassment did occur, MS. WILSON offered to send the committee data from states with a hybrid law. The State of Michigan recently changed its law and started with a pilot project to determine whether a basis for the concern of pretextual stops existed. She noted Michigan put a "safety valve" into its law to address that concern. SENATOR BUNDE presented a publication by People Saving People and said the group's in-depth studies of various communities showed no shift in enforcement patterns that could be interpreted as harassment that resulted from changing to a primary law. He pointed out that since Alaska's law is a hybrid, a pattern of harassment would already exist. He said that although he understands the concern, he does not believe it is of a sufficient level to avoid changing to a primary law. CHAIR SEEKINS asked if anyone else wanted to testify in opposition to SB 316. [No response was heard.] He then asked members to express any concerns about SB 316. SENATOR FRENCH said he would like to read the case that Mr. Fink referred to in regard to pretextual stops. CHAIR SEEKINS told members he would like to advance SB 316 from committee, as he believes it is good legislation as is. He offered to hold it in committee if Senator French would like more time to review it. CHAIR SEEKINS announced that he would hold SB 316 in committee and asked Ms. Wilson and Mr. Fink to provide the requested information to committee members. He also informed participants who were waiting to testify in support of the bill that the committee understands the weight of their testimony. SENATOR BUNDE asked that a representative from the law enforcement community testify on the subject of pretextual stops. MR. PAUL HARRIS, Director of the Fairbanks Police Department, stated support for SB 316 and said the law enforcement community asks that this bill pass. The law enforcement community believes that having a law requiring people to wear seat belts without being able to enforce it is similar to having a law that prohibits a person from stealing that cannot be enforced unless that person uses the money for another criminal act. He informed members that Fairbanks passed a primary ordinance last year that was repealed after about three months. The police enforced it for those three months and saw increased seat belt use during that time. During that three months, he received many calls in opposition to that ordinance but not one complaint about police officers making a pretextual stop, nor did he hear that allegation from the district attorney in DUI or other cases. He noted the police are too busy to make pretextual stops but acknowledged police do look for reasons to stop a suspicious vehicle at times. That vehicle might be in a place where it should not be, or carrying people it shouldn't be. In most of those situations, any reasonable person would want to take a further look to feel more secure. He also suggested that people who feel that mandating seat belt use is inconvenient or a restriction of personal rights take a look at a person in a full body cast or with other serious injuries. He admitted as a police officer, he gets tired of picking up the pieces and of not being able to do anything until an accident occurs. SB 316 will allow police to take preventive action to save lives and reduce injuries. SENATOR FRENCH asked Mr. Harris to offer advice on how to implement this law and prevent the backlash that occurred in Fairbanks. MR. HARRIS said he understands the independence of Alaskans but believes SB 316 is the right thing to do. It will save the state money and protect citizens' rights. He said legislators should expect to hear constituents complain that their rights are being restricted but, as a police officer, he is asking them to do the right thing. CHAIR SEEKINS said as a body shop owner, he has seen major damage done to vehicles yet the people involved sustained minor damage because they wore proper constraints. He noted those constraints could be improved and a lot of research is underway to find ways to better protect people. He repeated it is important to balance this issue on the side of protection and that the legislature will need to address any use of this law for pretextual stops if that occurs. He again asked if anyone waiting to testify opposed SB 316. [No response was heard.] He noted he would be willing to move this legislation from committee today. SENATOR FRENCH objected as he asked to see the material from Ms. Wilson. SENATOR THERRIAULT suggested that Senator French agree to moving the bill while awaiting the information. SENATOR FRENCH agreed. SENATOR THERRIAULT moved SB 316 and attached fiscal notes from committee with individual recommendations. CHAIR SEEKINS announced that without objection, the motion carried. He then told Senator French if he finds something onerous in the information he is waiting for, he would commit to addressing it at a later date.