March 27, 2013

Seat belt crackdown raises quota concerns

By NAOMI SCHALIT and JOHN CHRISTIE Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

(Continued from page 1)

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State police memoranda related to seat belt enforcement targets
Maine State Police memoranda related to seat belt enforcement targets

"It's a real problem," said Heiden. "The bottom-line concern is the danger that the police are going to make unconstitutional stops," violating the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against "unreasonable search and seizure."

"Say an officer only sees evidence of three violations, but is being required to make seven stops," said Heiden. "Seven stops required minus three legitimate stops equals four violations of constitutional rights. "

Richard Hartley, a Bangor attorney who is president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the requirement is troubling.

"The problem is that we rely on individual law enforcement officers to make difficult decisions on a day-to-day basis," he said. "(If) they have their individual discretion overborne by a policy that relates their production of tickets to their job performance, it's a dangerous slope."

But state Trooper Aaron Turcotte says the directive doesn't bother him.

"We want this deadly trend to stop," said Turcotte, a member of the Maine State Troopers Association's executive committee. "We never heard the colonel come out and say, 'You need to do seven a month.' It was an expectation at the troop level.

"The colonel was right on when he says this needs to be an emphasis point," said Turcotte, who added that the association's board fully supports the initiative.

Williams's boss, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, also supports it.

"How many of those young people's deaths do you read the word 'ejected' from the car," said Morris. "That's what's killing them."

In 1995, Maine had no mandatory seat belt law and the state's rate of seat belt use was 50 percent, according to a study published by the University of Southern Maine. That put Maine "fifth from the bottom of a list of all 50 states," according to the study.

In November of that year, state voters approved, by less than one percentage point, "Question 8," which asked "Do You Favor Requiring All Persons to Use Safety Belts in Motor Vehicles?"

Enforcement of the law was limited: Police could ticket drivers or passengers for seat belt violations only if they had stopped them for other, citable offenses.

Seat belt use grew to 72.3 percent in 2004. But to safety advocates, it wasn't growing fast enough. In 2007, Republican Sen. Christine Savage of Union proposed giving police the power to ticket drivers or passengers as a primary offense -- if police saw you weren't wearing a seat belt, they could stop you.

The bill passed, and in the months after the law's implementation, Maine's daytime seat belt use rose from 77 percent to 84 percent; nighttime use rose from 69 percent to 81 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

By 2012, daytime seat belt use was at a record 84.4 percent, but still less than the national rate of 86 percent.

The rising compliance rates in Maine, while gratifying, masked a stubbornly vexing statistic: The biggest age group of unbelted victims in fatal accidents was people ages 16 to 24.

"This is a generation of people who have never been in a car, growing up, when they haven't been in a child safety seat, a booster seat or a seat belt," Williams said. "But all of a sudden, when they start driving on their own, at least some of them aren't wearing their seat belts."

Williams wants his enforcement initiative to drive down the number of deaths of young people.

"The whole purpose of this initiative is to stop knocking on people's doors at 1 a.m. to tell them someone is dead," he said. "The whole point is to try to keep people alive."

Rep. Mark Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff who is now a lawyer and a co-chair of the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee, said he understands why Williams wants tougher enforcement but the appearance of a quota will spell trouble.

"The public just reacts that the quota becomes superior to the goal -- not only that, when you start to back specific numbers, you're really eroding an officer's ability to exercise discretion," said Dion. "I'm sure the colonel is going to get some feedback on this."

But Savage, whose bill gave police primary enforcement power over seat belt laws, said the ends may justify the means. She said she remembers vividly the hearing on her bill.

"We had some testimony that was heartbreaking. There just were so many losses of life. . . . Not only a loss of life, but so many people were getting seriously injured and handicapped because of those injuries.

"I don't like to see the state police have numbers to try to meet," Savage said. "But whatever will protect the lives of teenagers, I guess I can accept."

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Hallowell. It can be contacted by email at:

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