A new proposed law is going to the Governor that would allow police officers in Florida to pull drivers over for failing to wear their seat belts. Of course, it is already a violation of the traffic laws for a person to drive without wearing his/her seat belt. However, it is currently considered a secondary violation, as opposed to a primary violation. If a violation is considered secondary, a police officer cannot stop a driver based on that violation alone; the officer can only ticket the driver for a secondary violation if the police officer has probable cause to believe the driver committed a primary violation first, such as speeding or running a red light.
Under the new law, a police officer can stop a driver and give him/her a traffic ticket for the seat belt violation alone. What implications does this have for criminal defense lawyers? Failing to wear a seat belt is not a criminal offense; it is a civil infraction, and this new law will not change that. However, as criminal defense attorneys know, traffic violations are often the starting point for criminal investigations into drug crimes and gun crimes. Police in Jacksonville, Florida and other parts of Florida will pull a driver over that they consider suspicious and use a traffic infraction as the basis for the stop. The police officer will then proceed to ask questions and initiate an investigation looking for illegal drugs or guns or other evidence of criminal activity. This new law may give police officers another basis to stop drivers who are driving appropriately but are not wearing their seat belts.
Of course, any time a police officer pulls a driver over and conducts a search for drugs, guns or other evidence, criminal defense lawyers will look closely into whether the police officer had a legal basis to stop the vehicle and conduct the search. But be aware that, assuming this law passes, there is one more good reason to wear your seat belt.