Topic:
AUTOMOBILE SAFETY APPLIANCES; CONSTITUTIONAL LAW;
Location:
SEAT BELTS;
Scope:
Court Cases; Connecticut laws/regulations;

OLR Research Report


October 9, 1998 98-R-1198

FROM: James J. Fazzalaro, Principal Analyst

RE: Constitutionality of the Mandatory Seat Belt Use Law

You asked if the constitutionality of Connecticut's mandatory seat belt use law has been tested in court.

SUMMARY

Connecticut's seat belt use law has not been specifically tested in state or federal courts, but similar laws in several other states have been so tested and found to be constitutional. Court decisions in Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Montana have found these laws to be constitutional. Seat belt laws have mainly been challenged as a violation of an individual's constitutionally protected right to privacy and as an invalid exercise of a state's constitutionally granted police power. These arguments have been rejected by the courts in Illinois, Iowa, and New Jersey, and also, we believe in New York. The North Carolina case unsuccessfully attacked the law on different grounds, e.g., that it represented involuntary servitude and slavery. The Montana case involved a declared "free" man's unsuccessful assertion that he was not subject to any state or federal laws. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review either the Illinois or Iowa decisions and no appeals apparently were made in the other cases. While these decisions are not binding on courts in Connecticut, they and the significant body of other case law in this area suggests that a similar case brought in Connecticut might have similar results.

Decisions in seat belt cases generally follow the reasoning used in many other cases involving related highway safety issues, such as laws requiring mandatory helmet use by motorcyclists and securing small children in child restraints, which view such regulations as a reasonable exercise of a state's police power in the interests of the public health and welfare. The Illinois Supreme Court decision is of additional interest in that in upholding the constitutionality of the state's seat belt law, it overruled portions of a 1969 decision in which it had found the state's motorcycle helmet law unconstitutional; the only such court to have ruled a motorcycle helmet law unconstitutional as an invalid exercise of state police power.

CONNECTICUT'S MANDATORY SEAT BELT USE LAW

All state mandatory seat belt use laws are essentially the product of federal policy adopted in 1984 under which motor vehicle manufacturers were to have been required to install airbags or other passive restraints in all new vehicles beginning with the 1990 model year unless at least two-thirds of the states passed mandatory seat belt use laws meeting certain federal criteria. Having an acceptable seat belt use law may also qualify a state for certain federal incentive grants.

New York was the first state to pass such a law in 1984. New Jersey and Illinois followed in 1985. Connecticut passed a mandatory seat belt use law later in 1985 as PA 85-429 (CGS 14-100a). All states except New Hampshire currently have some form of mandatory seat belt use law.

CONSTITUTIONALITY OF SEAT BELT LAWS

Connecticut's law appears to never have been tested specifically. But in several other jurisdictions the courts have found there to be a rational relationship between a mandatory seat belt use law and the state's interest in protecting motorists and saving lives. The existence of this relationship has led courts in other states to the conclusion that states do not exceed their police powers granted under the U.S. Constitution when they pass such laws.

Since 1985, mandatory seat belt use laws have been the subject of constitutional review in at least five states--Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Montana--and possibly several others. In the first three cases, the laws were being challenged on two grounds, specifically that they: (1) violated a fundamental right to privacy guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and (2) denied due process protections granted by state and federal constitutions by exceeding the state's police powers. The courts dismissed these claims. (People v. Kohrig, 498 N.E. 2d 1158 (1986), appeal dismissed, 107 S. Ct. 1264; State v. Hartog, 440 N.W. 2d 852 (1989), cert. denied, 110 S. Ct. 569 (1989), rehearing denied 110 S. Ct. 1174 (1990); and State v. Fazekas, 569 A. 2d 913 (1989)) In the North Carolina case, the law was upheld against an unsuccessful challenge that it amounted to involuntary servitude and slavery in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (State v. Swain, 374, S.E. 2d 173 (1988)). In the Montana case, the defendant unsuccessfully argued that as a declared "free" man he was no longer a Fourteenth Amendment citizen and thus not subject to any state or federal laws. (State v. Folda, 885 P. 2d 426 (1994))

In Kohrig, the court recognized that limiting a person's constitutional right to privacy may be justified only by a "compelling state interest", but that the Supreme Court had selected only a few such rights as fundamental and warranting this level of protection. Specifically, this "privacy right encompasses and protects the personal intimacies of the home, the family, marriage, motherhood, procreation, and child rearing." While the Illinois seat belt law "implicates a person's interest in 'liberty' " in that it restricts his freedom of choice, the activity does not rise to the level of those recognized as subject to this heightened constitutional protection. Thus, the court concluded, the state needs only to demonstrate that there is a rational basis for the law and does not have to demonstrate a "compelling interest" for the law to be upheld. (Kohrig, 498 N.E. 2d 1162) The Iowa (Hartog) and New Jersey (Fazekas) decisions addressed this issue in a similar way.

Kohrig and Hartog both extensively address the issue of the scope of the state's police power with respect to seat belt laws. Both reject the argument that such laws are beyond the scope of this power, which is considered to be the legislature's "broad, inherent power to pass laws that promote the public health, safety, and welfare." (Hartog, p.856) Laws passed in pursuit of this goal are "presumed to be constitutional provided there is some reasonable relation to the public welfare." Someone challenging such acts must overcome this presumption by "negating every reasonable basis upon which the laws may be sustained." (Hartog, p.857)

Both decisions accept the argument that the legislature has a rational and reasonable basis to believe that unbelted drivers and passengers endanger the safety of others, not just themselves. For example, unrestrained drivers may be more likely to lose control of the vehicle during the accident and injure other parties. Unrestrained passengers may be thrown against the driver or others in the vehicle. In Kohrig and Hartog, the courts echoed similar decisions in other cases to the effect that preventing and reducing injuries and the societal costs associated with them are valid state interests and thus a valid exercise of the state's police power.

The Kohrig decision is interesting in another respect. In 1969, the Illinois Supreme Court was the only such court to invalidate a motorcycle helmet use law (People v. Fries, 250 N.E. 2d 149). Decisions in more than 35 other cases, including one by the U.S. Supreme Court, have otherwise established an extensive weight of authority that such helmet laws are a valid exercise of the police power. In deciding Kohrig, the Illinois Supreme Court explicitly overruled its decision in Fries to the extent that it was inconsistent with its opinion in the seat belt case.

JJF:tjo