Buckle Up and Shut Up

Just when you thought it couldn’t be any easier for Police in Florida to detain automobile drivers in an effort to ferret out crime, guess what?  Starting June 30, 2009 Florida will put into effect a new law which will allow the Police to cite an individual for driving without a seatbelt on, even if no other violations are cited.  Prior to this law the Police could issue a civil citation for failure to wear a seat belt, but could not use this violation as reason to stop a motorist.  With the June 30th change, FL will join 27 other states in classifying this law as a “primary seatbelt law” allowing stops for no other reason but for a lack of a seatbelt being worn by a driver or passenger.

Prior to this law going into effect, an officer had to develop probable cause to pull one over for a civil traffic infraction.  This premise was laid out in Whren v. US, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), where the court said that if an officer has probable cause to stop a motorist for even a minor traffic violation, the stop is lawful and the evidence obtained afterwards as a result of the stop is admissible in court.  Thus, even if an officer may have suspected that a criminal activity was occurring, if an officer “could stop” the vehicle for a minor traffic infraction he would have just cause to stop that vehicle and potentially further investigate the suspected crime.  The Whren decision essentially eliminated any real likelihood of a traffic stop being invalid as being pretextual as now all an officer had to do was note that he “could stop” the motorist for a traffic infraction.

In addition to making a traffic stop for probable cause for a traffic infraction, an officer could detain a motorist if there is a well founded and an articulated rationale that there is reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.  Thus, if an officer believes someone is committing a crime in a vehicle, can articulate his reason why he thinks so, and his suspicion is reasonable, he can detain a vehicle for investigatory purposes.

So, what are the potential criminal implications with this new “primary seatbelt law?”  Basically, an officer can pull a motorist over he believes is committing a crime if all he has as a reason for a stop is that he notices that person not wearing a seatbelt.  While making contact with the driver he may detect certain things that lead him further to believe that criminal activity is going on and thus he may inquire.  Whereas before a motorist may dodge a bullet in that an officer may not be able to develop probable cause that a traffic infraction has occurred or reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, all the officer needs now is to notice a lack of a seatbelt and he has his lawful reason for a stop and avoids any reasonable possibility that his stop could be deemed pretextual.  In essence, deciding not to wear a seatbelt could act as probable cause to be detained.  This detainment could lead to more serious charges should the motorist be up to no good.

Moral of the story you ask?  If you’ve had a little too much to drink or have just paid a visit to one of Pablo Escobar’s associates, buckle up and if pulled over, shut up.  Nothing you say to the officer is going to do you any favors.  The Police aren’t in the business of “helping you out” or “cutting you a break.”  If you run your yap, what you say WILL be used against you later down the road.  I’ve never met an officer or a prosecutor that didn’t love a defendant that was a chatterbox.  A simple click could very well be the difference in you making it home, or making it to one of Florida’s finest vacation destinations — with a DUI or other felony charge.  So, put the belt on.  It could very well save your life or even a trip to jail.

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