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Is It a Crime Not to Wear a Seat Belt in New Jersey?

In New Jersey, driving while not wearing a seat belt can come with severe penalties. The repercussions for not wearing a seat belt while driving in the Garden State escalated from a ticket and minor fine to the possibility of criminal charges in 2014.

On September 18, 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that drivers not wearing a seat belt and/or not enforcing minor passengers in their vehicle to wear a seat belt could potentially face criminal charges and up to a decade in prison.

Legislation Based on Public Health and Safety

Ultimately, this stringent legislation regarding seat belts hinges on concern for public health and safety.

A particular case originating out of Sussex County demonstrates this focus on public safety and its relation to one’s neglect to wear a seat belt.

The Case of Kirby Lenihan

In 2007, eighteen-year-old Kirby Lenihan was driving her car with a sixteen-year-old passenger. Both Lenihan and her passenger were unrestrained and sustained serious injuries when Lenihan swerved off the road and subsequently hit a guardrail and signpost. Both Lenihan and her passenger were rushed to a nearby hospital, where her passenger tragically died the next day.

Police found paraphernalia in Lenihan’s vehicle that led them to suspect she had been getting high through a process referred to as “huffing.” When Lenihan’s blood was drawn at the hospital, a substance known as difluoroethane was found to be present in her blood, confirming the police’s suspicion.

Lenihan was ultimately charged with two second-degree offenses for not wearing a seat belt. These offenses were:

  • Vehicular homicide
  • Violation of New Jersey’s seat belt law

Lenihan’s defense attorney was able to get her seat belt offense reduced to a third-degree offense by making a plea bargain agreement with the prosecutor. Lenihan pleaded guilty to the seat belt offense and received a five-year maximum prison sentence. (Were it not for her attorney’s wise judgment in securing a plea bargain, Lenihan may have received a twofold, ten-year maximum prison sentence.) Additionally, her attorney was able to get the charge of vehicular homicide dismissed.

Lenihan received a sentence of three years’ probation, which she appealed. Her appeal prompted the New Jersey Supreme Court to delineate the laws concerning seat belts and affirm that you can be charged with criminal offenses for failing to have you and your passengers buckle up before hitting the road.

New Jersey Hasn’t Loosened Its Seat Belt Laws

Though it’s been years since this Supreme Court ruling, New Jersey has neither eased its seat belt laws nor diverted attention from them.

For instance, you may be familiar with law enforcement’s annual, highly publicized “Click It or Ticket” campaign. “Click It or Ticket” promotes a zero-tolerance policy regarding the enforcement of seat belt laws through paid advertising. Law enforcement also collaborates with various government entities, school administrations, and other organizations to advocate for seat belt usage while driving.

Who Do New Jersey Seat Belt Laws Apply To?

On the state’s official Department of Law & Public Safety site, New Jersey’s seat belt laws are listed in detail.

The laws specify that seat belts must be installed and functioning properly in the following types of vehicles:

  • Passenger vehicles including vans, SUVs, and pickup trucks

Further, the laws specify that seat belts must be worn by the following individuals:

  • All passengers 8+ years old and who are at least 57 inches tall, whether seated in the front or back seats

Exceptions to New Jersey Seat Belt Laws

Exceptions to the seat belt laws do exist. The laws do not apply to:

  • Individuals seated in a passenger vehicle that was manufactured prior to July 1, 1966
  • Individuals seated in a passenger vehicle manufactured with limited safety seat belt systems, such as a bus
  • Individuals seated in a passenger vehicle who hold a doctor’s note stating they’re unable to wear a seat belt for medical reasons
  • Employees of the United States Postal Service who are driving USPS vehicles to fulfill the duties of their role as letter carriers

What Are the Consequences for Not Wearing a Seat Belt in New Jersey?

If you’re pulled over while either driving or riding in a passenger vehicle and are found to be not wearing a seat belt, you can receive a fine of $46 if this is your first offense. If you’re sitting in the backseat of the car unbuckled, it’s considered a secondary offense.

If you’re committing other offenses in addition to not having yourself or your passengers buckled in while you’re driving—such as the case of Kirby Lenihan—you’re at risk of being charged with a criminal offense and consequences far worse than a fine.

Why You Need an Attorney When Facing Seat Belt Offenses in New Jersey

If you’ve received a ticket for a seat belt violation that you disagree with, or if you’re facing more serious criminal charges relating to traffic offenses, you should retain an attorney to represent you in court.

There are several reasons that you should not represent yourself in court. For example:

  • You have insufficient knowledge of traffic laws and court rules. These laws and regulations are complicated, and attorneys have dedicated their careers to studying and interpreting them. You want to be as prepared as possible when you appear in court.
  • The way you present yourself matters—and not having an attorney represent you can lead the prosecutor and jury to believe you’re careless regarding your case.
  • It’s more likely that you’ll get convicted without attorney representation, due to your inexperience in the courtroom and lack of sufficient knowledge regarding legal procedures.

Call Us Today

Martin A. Kron & Associates, P.C. is prepared to analyze your case with the utmost attention. If you’re facing charges for traffic violations in New York or New Jersey, you can expect to learn your legal options from our knowledgeable counsel.

Founding attorney Martin A. Kron is a former traffic court judge who is savvy about the many nuances of the system. He and his trusted team can skillfully build your defense and assist you in averting severe penalties.

You should never have to fight alone.

Call us today at (212) 235-1525 or submit your information here to schedule your free consultation.
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