ASBURY PARK, N.J. – According to a recent decision by New Jersey Supreme Court, individuals who would not wear seat belts or drive around with minor passengers not wearing them could expose them to prison term and criminal charges.

On Sep 18, the state’s highest court issued that opinion in a Sussex County case.

In real, the Supreme Court said that an infraction of the State’s-belt law charges $20 for a ticket usually and it can also be used as one of the elements in criminal law that can expose an offender to a prison term of up to 10 years.

This law in question makes it a crime for individuals to violate these laws when the person has knowledge of any law that is intended to protect the safety and health of the public or if they fail to perform the duty intentionally which is imposed by the law to protect the safety and the health of the public. If there is failure to act on it then it involves some recklessness and can result in severe injury or death.

In the recent case which was decided by the Supreme Court, the attorney for defendant Kirby Lenihan argued that seat belt law is a different case and it does not fall into the category of violations or serious crimes that could be used as an excuse to proceed with such a criminal prosecution. Attorney Gregory A. Kraemer argued that the criminal law only involves violations of building codes, pollution controls, fire or other laws that are designed to protect the public or community at large from harm.

The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed and held that the state’s seat belt law is “clearly intended to protect the public health and safety,” and a violation if it can be used to support a criminal conviction under the other law.

Patrick Sheehan, assistant of an Ocean County prosecutor who oversees the prosecutor’s fatal accident team, said that “It means you have to wear your seat belt.”

Point Pleasant attorney John Menzel, one of the area’s foremost DUI defense attorneys and past chairman of the New Jersey Bar Association’s municipal court practice section, said “This case now indicates that what would normally be considered a minor offense may now be elevated to a very serious crime.”

But some certain circumstances are actually necessary to exist like recklessness on the part of the individual who is ignoring the law that can cause as a result of death or injury because both the elements which were present in the case have been recently decided by the Supreme Court.

On Aug. 10, 2007, Lenihan was driving her car in the early morning hours in Hampton Township, when she was 18 years old and she had a 16-year-old passenger. At one point, Lenihan veered onto the shoulder of the road, struck a guardrail and hit a sign post on the side of the road. Both Lenihan and the other passenger who sat beside her were not wearing seat belts and they both got seriously injured.

According to court documents, both Lenihan and the other individual were taken to Morristown Memorial Hospital where the passenger died the following day.

Police found two aerosol cans in Lenihan’s car which she was driving, a dust remover and a carpet deodorizer. Both the dust remover and carpet deodorizer contained the chemical difluoroethane. The carpet deodorizer was without its cap and a nozzle which were both missing. The incident led to an investigating officer to conclude that the cans were being used to get high in a process known as “huffing,” according to the court papers.

According to the court papers, the blood that was drawn from Lenihan at the hospital confirmed that the officer’s suspicion of the presence of difluoroethane.

Lenihan was charged with driving recklessly and vehicular homicide that can cause death while violating the seat belt law. Both are second-degree offenses that carry prison terms of 5-10 years.

The seat-belt offense was downgraded in a plea bargain to a third-degree offense that actually carries a prison term of five years maximum to which Lenihan pleaded guilty. The vehicular homicide charge was dismissed; Lenihan was sentenced to 3 years on probation for the offense although Lenihan filed an appeal on which the Supreme Court made the decision.

Menzel said now that the law has been clarified, he could see it extending to some different violations of laws that are meant to promote public safety like using cell phones while driving, talking on the cell phone while driving a vehicle, driving without headlights on, riding a motorcycle without a helmet or tail lights, or with a passenger who isn’t wearing one.

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