Seatbelt law loophole helped overturn DUI conviction

Seatbelt law loophole helped overturn DUI conviction

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Justine Rivera was pulled over on September 22, 2013 on Kahili Street when HPD Officer Sheldon Watts Jr. noticed six people in the backseat of the car.

Through the course of the stop, he determined Rivera was intoxicated, and arrested her for driving under the influence, a crime she was later convicted of.

But this week, the conviction was overturned.

"I'm mad, and I'm frustrated," explained founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawaii Carol McNamee, who says she can't understand how it happened.

"Had they not been stopped, this vehicle could've crashed.  It could have ended in death for all the people in that vehicle," McNamee said.

"It's not about drunk driving.  It's about whether it was a constitutional stop or not, and it wasn't in this case" said Jonathan Burge, Rivera's attorney.

Hawaii Revised Statute 291-11.6 is intended to strengthen seat belt laws. However, there's a clause that states it's legal to have more passengers in the backseat than seat belts.

"So if there's three seat belts, three have to be in seat belts and the other 10 do not have to be in seat belts," Burge said.

Hence, when the officer made the stop based on six people being in the backseat, it was an illegal stop. Because of that, the evidence to support the DUI was thrown out.

"The officer didn't know the law, misapplied it, and that's what the appellate courts found," said Burge.

"This officer who made the stop should be given an award.  He cared," countered McNamee.

While McNamee and Burge's opinions of the arresting officer may differ, their opinion of the clause may not, that the language of the law needs strengthening. 

The entire statute can be read HERE

The clause reads:

"No person shall be guilty of violating this section if:

     (2)  The person not restrained by a seat belt assembly is in a vehicle in which the number of persons exceeds the number of seat belt assemblies available in the vehicle or the number of seat belt assemblies originally installed in the vehicle, whichever is greater; provided that all available seat belt assemblies are being used to restrain passengers;"

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