Ohio Seat Belt Law Raises Fears of Racially Discriminatory Enforcement

April 12, 1999 12:00 am

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CLEVELAND, OH — A bill that would allow police to stop and ticket motorists for not wearing seat belts could easily become one more tool for harassment of minority drivers, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio said today.

“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 Christine Link, Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio.

“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 be interrogated about where they are going and whether they have any drugs or weapons in the car,” she added. “It creates a resentment toward police, particularly when these same people have their cars torn apart on the roadside by police searching for evidence of a non-existent crime.”

The ACLU is currently engaged in a national campaign against the practice of racially discriminatory police stops, which has come to be known as “Driving While Black or Brown,” or “DWBB.”

While the ACLU recognized legitimate safety concerns over seat belt usage, it stressed that a less intrusive and more productive way to address the problem is through comprehensive public education about the dangers of driving without a seat belt.

“We think that Ohioans would prefer hearing this message through educational efforts and not via the heavy-handedness of police power,” Link said.

Some lawmakers have said that provisions in the bill stating that police may not search cars, drivers or their passengers “solely because of a safety belt violation” should ease fears. But the inclusion of such language is meaningless in the face of continued erosion in the courts of Ohioans’ Fourth Amendment rights, the ACLU said.

“Language prohibiting police from searching someone’s car over violation of a primary seat belt law adds no protection for the rights of citizens,” said Raymond Vasvari, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio.

Such a search would be unconstitutional in any case under Knowles v. Iowa, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting police searches. “The real problem with giving police increased authority to pull people over are the civil liberties violations that follow as a result,” Vasvari explained.

In a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court case, Whren v. United States, 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.

While police cannot stop a motorist simply because of a “hunch” that the person is, for example, carrying illegal contraband, under the law they are authorized to stop and search anyone who commits any kind of traffic offense.

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