New Jersey Supreme Court Issues Major Ruling on Seat Belts

Morristown residents may not be aware that a recent New Jersey Supreme Court ruling could have a major impact on their lives. The simple mistake of forgetting to buckle up in the car — in certain situations — could now result in a serious criminal charge.

The ruling arises from a 2007 case in which a teenage driver and passenger got into an accident. Neither was wearing a seat belt, and the passenger died from injuries suffered in the crash. Police later found that the driver had been abusing household chemicals and charged her with recklessly causing a death while in violation of the state’s seat belt law.

That charge stems from the fact that in New Jersey, if an individual’s reckless action in violation of a public health and safety law leads to another person’s injury or death, then violation of that law itself can be charged as a crime. At one point in this case, a criminal defense attorney argued that legal interpretation only applied in cases of alleged violation of building codes, fire codes, environmental regulations and similar laws intended to protect a community as a whole, not seat belt laws. In the end, the court disagreed.

Where does this ruling leave Morristown residents? Is breaking the seat belt law suddenly punishable by time in jail? Not quite. Importantly, a driver must also meet the law’s requirements of acting recklessly and thereby injuring or killing another person before being charged under this law.

It is possible, however, that this ruling could be applied more broadly in New Jersey. It could potentially affect rivers accused of using cell phones behind the wheel, for example, or of missing headlights or tail lights after they get into an accident with injuries or fatalities. But as with any other criminal charge, the burden is on the prosecution to prove all of the allegations necessary for a criminal conviction.

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