Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio officially announced its opposition to recently proposed legislation that would allow police to stop and ticket motorists for not wearing a seat belt. The basis for the ACLU's opposition is that such a law would give law enforcement one more reason to unfairly target and selectively enforce laws against motorists who legitimately fear being stopped based solely on their appearances. As well, such a law would give law enforcement further power to harass law-abiding citizens.
Some lawmakers feel that the presence of such language as "a police officer may not search or inspect a motor vehicle, its contents, the driver or passenger solely because of a safety belt violation" will ease the fears of many who have expressed concern over the legislation. But the inclusion of such language does nothing to protect the continued erosion of Ohioans' Fourth Amendment rights.
"Language prohibiting police from searching someone's car over violation of a primary seat belt law adds no protection for the rights of citizens. Such a search would be unconstitutional in any case under Knowles v. Iowa, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting police searches," according to ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Raymond Vasvari. "The real problem with giving police increased authority to pull people over are the civil liberties violations that follow as a result," added Vasvari.
This "real problem" Vasvari refers to relates to a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court case, Whren v. United States, in which the Court essentially declared that it is constitutional for police to stop motorists for violation of any traffic law even if the officer has an ulterior motive or suspicion that the motorist is guilty of violating other laws and wishes to pursue that suspicion. That is, police cannot stop a motorist simply because of a "hunch" that person is, for example, carrying illegal contraband. However, if that motorist commits any traffic offense the police can then reserve the authority to stop him/her and start the process (intrusive questioning, asking to search the car, etc) of determining if that person has committed a more serious crime.
"It's not unusual for citizens to complain to us about being stopped by police for nothing more serious than a broken tail light only to find themselves the target of a barrage of intrusive and unnecessary questions about where they are going and whether they have any drugs or weapons in the car," according to Christine Link, Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio, "and many times it creates a resentment towards police, particularly when these same people have their cars torn apart at roadside by police searching for evidence of a non-existent crime."
"As well, racial minorities who believe that they or their family and friends have been unfairly targeted by police in the past should be particularly concerned about this bill," said Link. "While the issue of 'driving while black' has only recently entered the consciousness of white America, it's been a legitimate fear of minorities for years. If this legislation is passed, it has the potential of becoming one more tool for harassment," added Link.
Link also stated that, "while the ACLU of Ohio recognizes the legitimate safety concerns advanced by legislators, we feel that a less intrusive and more productive way to address this concern is through comprehensive public education regarding the dangers of driving while not wearing a seat belt. We think that Ohioans would prefer hearing this message through educational efforts and not via the heavy-handedness of police power."