Wednesday, March 30, 2011

People v. Overland (Cal. Ct. App. - March 30, 2011)

You don't get many appeals for seat belt violations.  Why?  Because it's a penny-ante fine.  Not worth hiring an attorney.  Definitely not worth appealing.

For normal people, anyway.  Here's the exception.

Why does Barbara Overland appeal?  Because she thinks she's right, obviously.  How can she afford it?  She was driving a Lexus, so that's a clue.  But a 2002 Lexus.  Hardly the lap of luxury.

But here's another clue:  Her attorney's name is Mark Overland.  Which may give a hint as to why Barbara Overland can file an appeal.  (By contrast, the People don't even bother filing a brief in the appeal; they let the Appellate Division do all the work itself.)

It's not like the Overlands make totally frivolous claims.  Barbara was wearing a seatbelt.  It's just that she was wearing a lap belt, and had the shoulder harness tucked behind her back.  The officer ticketed her, and she objected.  All the way to the Appellate Division.

So the question is whether the Vehicle Code, which says you have to be "properly restrained by a seat belt," is satisfied when you're restrained only by a lap belt.  The Appellate Division says "No."  Some older cars, to be sure, only have lap belts, and for those cars, a lap belt is good enough.  But post-1996 cars are required to have shoulder harnesses as well.  Including Barbara's 2002 Lexus.  The Appellate Division says that you are not "properly" restrained in such a vehicle unless you strap on the shoulder harness as well.  No tucking it behind the back.

This is a plausible holding.  It also makes good public policy sense.  There's a reason we require shoulder harnesses.  They save lives.  You should wear them.  [Total tangent:  One of my first memories of being in California -- way back in 1985 -- was driving to Malibu down Topanga Canyon with my girlfriend (who lived in Canoga Park) and insisting that she wear a seat belt, and having her vociferously argue that they were a hassle and it was rational for her not to wear one.  (This was before mandatory seat belt laws.)  I distinctly remember thinking:  "Wow.  This is a totally smart woman.  How can she be so clearly wrong on this point?"  As well as winning the argument.  Which was a rarity -- and hence memorable -- for me.]

The Appellate Division's holding is nonetheless far from a self-evident proposition.  Why is it "proper" for a person driving a pre-1996 vehicle to wear only a lap belt but not "proper" for someone else?  The Appellate Division makes an argument that's superficially plausible, saying that Section 27314.5 of the Vehicle Code requires dealers of pre-1996 cars to put a sticker on them that expressly warns the buyer that the car does not have shoulder harnesses and saying that the things save lives.  So there's an arguable notice difference.  But the Appellate Division doesn't (1) note that this only applies to dealers, so many people might not have gotten notice, or (2) note that this notice is only required if a nonprofit entity gives these stickers to the dealer for free, which may or may not happen.

As a result, there are definitely people who are entitled to only wear lap belts.  Which is undoubtedly why Barbara and Mark thought that the ticket here was unjust.

But they lose.  At least in Los Angeles, wear your shoulder harness.  It's a good idea.  As well as the law.  At least after today.