The amount of fines that Idaho has collected through enforcement of the state’s seat belt law has been declining during the past three years. And, according to one legal analyst, the law is difficult to enforce in the first place. Yet portions of the revenue generated from the law’s violations continue to fund a state program whose budget has significantly expanded in recent years.
“It is often difficult for a law enforcement agent to determine if people are actually belted in,” said Mitch Toryanski, a former criminal prosecutor and Idaho state senator. “Think about it. You’re in an entirely separate vehicle trying to see who is buckled in the vehicle beside you or in front of you. That’s not always easy.”
Toryanski added that a seat belt violation is only regarded as a secondary violation in Idaho, meaning that a law enforcement officer cannot stop a driver solely because he is suspected to not be buckled properly. According to the Idaho Department of Transportation website, “A law enforcement officer can issue a citation solely for a safety restraint violation, but there must be another violation leading to the traffic stop.”
“That is an expression of the view of the Idaho state Legislature,” Toryanski told IdahoReporter.com. “They could easily change that and make a seat belt violation a primary violation, but they simply have chosen not to over the years.”
Another portion of the law stipulates that it applies to a driver of a vehicle “of not more than 8,000 pounds.”
“Normally officers are able to determine the GVW (gross vehicle weight) of a vehicle by reviewing the vehicle’s registration,” said Scot Haug, chief of police in Post Falls. “The registration will have this information on it.”
‘Vehicles over 8,000 pounds are usually large trucks or buses,” explained Joe Decker, spokesperson for Canyon County. “There’s really no need to verify weight of personal vehicles as almost all are under 8,000 pounds.”
Toryanski noted that not only is it difficult to detect when drivers and passengers are violating the state’s seat belt law, it is also difficult to defend an alleged seat belt law violation in court.
“The burden of proof in a trial for a seat belt infraction is the same as for a trial of a criminal action,” he said. “The state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the violation occurred. That’s the highest burden of proof that there is, and by intention, it is very difficult to achieve.”
Despite the high burden of proof for the state, Toryanski believes many Idahoans likely choose to simply pay the fine rather than contest them in court. “That’s probably easier for many people, especially those for whom their personal or professional time comes at a high price. Even if you contest a citation, you really never know what the outcome will be in court so just writing the check is probably easier for some people.”
Although revenues collected in Idaho for seat belt violations have declined during the past three years, portions of those revenues are used to help fund a statewide welfare program. According to the law, half the money collected with each seat belt law violation ($5 of each $10 fine) is allocated to Idaho’s Catastrophic Health Care Program (CAT).
According to the Idaho state government website, the CAT program was established in 1982 and is “designed as an insurance program for the counties to cover the cost of treatment for catastrophic illness suffered by county residents who have no means to pay for the cost of that care.”
During the past year the CAT program has been subject to increased scrutiny in light of the Obama administration’s effort to convince Idaho and other states to expand their statewide Medicaid programs. A proposal emerged in the Legislature earlier this year calling for completely shutting down the CAT program and replacing it with an expanded Medicaid program, to be funded with federal tax dollars for the first few years. Despite the idea getting very little traction in the Legislature, it has continued to be a hot topic among government officials ever since the governor raised the issue in January.
According to Roger Christensen, a Bonneville County commissioner and chairman of the board of directors for the CAT program, the budget for the program has grown substantially during the past three years while revenues contributed from seat belt violations have declined somewhat.
“In the fiscal year 2011, seat belt citations amounted to $152,832 for the CAT program budget, while the program was appropriated (from the Legislature) a total of $31,044,251,” said Christensen. In fiscal year 2012, seat belt tickets contributed $152,017 in an appropriated budget of $35,337,700. And so far in fiscal year 2013, citations have contributed $126, 887 in an appropriated budget of $36,532,800.
Christensen said that the decision to contribute seat belt violation fines to the CAT program was a decision made among state officials. “The reasoning behind it is that injuries sustained in automotive accidents place a high strain on CAT funds,” he said.