Seatbelt Law is Intended to Protect Public Health and Safety and Can be Used as a Predicate for Conviction of a Serious Crime

State v. Lenihan, 427 N.J. Super. 499 (App. Div. 2012).  Would it not seem “obvious” that N.J.S.A. 39:3-76.2f, New Jersey’s “seatbelt law,” is intended to protect the public health and safety?  A Law Division judge found that “obvious.”  But that was not the full question in this case.  Rather, the issue was whether a violation of the seatbelt law can serve as a predicate offense “to support a conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18(b), which proscribes knowingly violating a law or failing to perform a duty imposed by law intended to protect the public health and safety and recklessly causing serious bodily injury.”  The Appellate Division found that the seatbelt law could be used in that fashion.  Judge Guadagno, in what appears to be his first published decision, wrote for a unanimous panel.

Defendant had been driving with a 16-year old friend in her car when she lost control of the vehicle and struck a guardrail.  Defendant was injured and her passenger was killed.  A sample of defendant’s blood revealed that she may have been high as a result of inhaling propellants from cans found in the car.  Defendant was charged, among other things, with violating a public safety law (namely, the seatbelt law, as to both herself and her passenger, since the statute makes drivers responsible for ensuring that minor passengers use seatbelts) and recklessly causing the passenger’s death.  After defendant unsuccessfully moved to dismiss that charge on the grounds that the seatbelt law was not a public safety measure, defendant entered into a plea arrangement under which the charge was causing bodily injury rather than death by virtue of the seatbelt law violation.  The plea arrangement preserved defendant’s right to appeal the issue of whether the seatbelt law could be used as a predicate for the conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18(b).

On defendant’s appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the conviction.   Though review was plenary since this was a question of law, and criminal statutes are strictly construed, Judge Guadagno had no difficulty concluding that the seatbelt law was “a law intended to protect the public health and safety as contemplated by N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18(b).”  The language of the statute, its legislative history and the background leading to its introduction and enactment, and decisions in other states holding that seatbelt laws are designed to protect health and safety all pointed to that result.

The panel then faced defendant’s main argument: that while the statute does address the safety of an individual minor passenger, it does not address the safety of “the general public at large,” which she argued was what N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18(b) requires as a predicate.  Judge Guadagno disagreed.  Though the statute does not define “a law intended to protect the public health and safety,” and no reported cases had addressed the statute, the court did not find “any express or implied limitations as the type of public health and safety offense that can serve as a predicate violation under N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18.”  Instead, “[t]he Legislature’s use of the term, ‘a law intended to protect the public health and safety’ suggests an intent to reach a broad spectrum and their conscious choice not to employ restrictions and qualifications precludes [the court] from supplying them here.”

Judge Guadagno also rebuffed an argument that N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18(b) was unconstitutionally vague.  Defendant first raised that contention in her Appellate Division reply brief.  Normally, courts will not consider arguments raised for the first time in a reply brief.  Here, however, the panel was willing to do so “[a]s this issue is a matter of first impression … even though it was not properly presented.”  Nonetheless, the argument failed on the merits.