Legislature(2003 - 2004)

03/12/2004 08:00 AM JUD

Audio Topic
* first hearing in first committee of referral
+ teleconferenced
= 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                                                                    
     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                                                               
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                                                               
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                                                               
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                                                               
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.                                                               
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.                                                                                                  

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