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Ticketing cited despite curbs on seat belt law

By Francie Latour and Bill Dedman, Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent, 5/24/2003

    On city boulevards and rural lanes, whites and women are far more likely to receive written warnings instead of tickets when stopped for identical traffic offenses, according to a Boston Globe study of newly released state records.


Police plan public meeting

Chiefs deny racial profiling

Civil rights advocates laud plan

Police chiefs decry study

Racial profiling is confirmed
Northeastern study [PDF]
Report summary
Who got a passing grade?
Police response [MS Word]

Police flouting 'no fix' law on tickets

Profiling study cites dozens of locales Charts
Northeastern study [PDF]

Reilly starts push to end profiling in police stops

Boston police to get tough on tickets

Judge: Suspect must stay in jail

Seeing bias, evidence tossed

Deeper look at profiling

Funding urged for study

Ticketing cited despite curbs

Romney backs profile tracking
People asked to join task force

Chief: Glitch caused error

Task force to review data


Day 1:
Race, sex, and age drive ticketing
Minority officers are stricter on minorities
Boston to track all stops by police

Who gets fined for speeding
Minority officers
Most-favored status
One officer's week

Ticketing whites vs. minorities
Large departments | All

Ticketing women vs. men
Large departments | All

Day 2:
Punishment varies by town and officer

How tickets raise insurance
Ranking the departments
Littering is worse?

Toughest on speeders
Large departments | All
Locals vs. out-of-towners
Large departments | All

Day 3:
Troopers fair, tough in traffic encounters

Frequent ticketers
How fast can you go?

Editorial: Tickets to fix
Op-Ed: Looking deeper
Op-Ed: Study proves nothing
Profiles in prejudice


Q & A
Secretary of Public Safety Edward A. Flynn, the senior law enforcement official in Massachusetts, spoke with the Globe about this series. Q & A

Detailed report
A closer look at how the Globe analyzed hundreds of thousands of traffic tickets.
Download study
This .PDF document requires Adobe Acrobat

Online chat
Globe reporter Bill Dedman chatted with readers about this series.
Read full transcript


In January, the Globe published the first results of its analysis.

Part 1:
Citations reveal disparity
Totals key to computations

Tracking tickets
Searches by race and age

Searching minorities more often
Ticketing their own

Part 2:
Police not pressed on race
Tewksbury cop is tops
Fridays worst for tickets
Scope of monitoring reduced

Where race was not recorded

Failing to record the race
Searching more cars

Despite a state law that bans police from pulling drivers over for seat belt violations alone, tens of thousands of Massachusetts drivers have been ticketed and fined solely for not buckling up, according to a Globe review of state records.

Officers can legally stop cars for speeding or another traffic offense, then cite the driver only for not being in a seat belt. Police and state officials said officers are using their discretion to drive home a safety message while sparing drivers heavy fines and costlier insurance.

But critics said police appear to be circumventing the law by stopping motorists solely for not wearing a seat belt.

As traffic safety officials promote the nationwide Click it or Ticket campaign this weekend, one of the deadliest driving periods of the year, police in Massachusetts are largely hamstrung by the state ban on stopping drivers solely for seat belt violations.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts, which is one of 31 states with such a law, will debate again next week whether to lift the ban, which barely survived a legislative battle two years ago. Governor Mitt Romney is in favor of lifting the ban.

But the ban hasn't kept drivers from getting tickets for only a seat belt violation. Police in the state wrote nearly 27,000 tickets in which the only charge was a seat belt violation during the 22 months from April 2001 through January 2003, according to records from the Registry of Motor Vehicles reviewed by the Globe.

Civil libertarians and other proponents of limiting police power said the pattern shows that police are circumventing the intent of the seat belt law.

''I think it's obvious that police are skirting the . . . law,'' said Chip Ford, director of operations for Citizens for Limited Taxation, which opposes giving police more power to enforce seat belt laws.

The Massachusetts State Police wrote close to 11,000 of the 27,000 tickets. And in six towns scattered across the state, more than 80 percent of seat belt tickets issued contained no other charges: Mendon, Southborough, Seekonk, Kingston, Hopkinton, and Andover.

There is no way to determine from the records why motorists who received only seat belt tickets were stopped. Ford said he was astounded by the number of seat belt tickets with no other charges.

''If there's a violation important enough to pull a driver over, they should certainly be cited for it,'' he said. ''And if they're not cited for it, then that violation wasn't very critical, and obviously [the police] were looking for the seat belt violation to begin with.''

Ford said that while offenses like speeding and running a red light put other drivers at risk, driving without a seat belt endangers only the violator.

''If they're going to give them a break,'' he said, ''why not on the seat belt, which is no threat to public safety, instead of the speeding, where the behavior is a threat to public safety? Somehow, they've got their priorities askew.''

Police and state officials said officers are being lenient, not skirting the law.

''I think what's happening is, officers are stopping them for some other violation and using their discretion,'' said Lieutenant Ernest Horn of the Mendon Police Department. ''They are choosing to cite them only for a seat belt violation instead of what the other infraction was.''

In Mendon, a town of about 6,000 residents near the Rhode Island border, 87 percent of drivers who were pulled over and received a seat belt ticket had no other violations cited.

Horn said that within the past several years, seat belt enforcement has become a priority in his town, which was once rated by state officials as one of the worst of its size for fatal and serious motor vehicle accidents.

In ticketing for seat belt violations only, Horn said, officers are using ''the least punitive action they can take against the driver. They're giving them a fine which, you know, it's still a fine. But it doesn't affect their insurance . . . We believe wearing seat belts is very important, and we're trying to get that point across. But we're adding a little compassion and discretion.''

A seat belt ticket is a $25 fine and doesn't go on a driver's record and increase insurance rates, as a speeding ticket would.

State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat who also supports limits on seat belt enforcement, said the notion of police stopping drivers for one offense and ticketing them for another undermines the larger statewide effort to make officers more accountable in the way they conduct traffic stops. She sponsored a legislative act on racial and gender profiling by police, and supports more documentation of traffic stops.

''You have to put the reason for the stop on the ticket,'' Wilkerson said. ''If the only thing you have is that you got a ticket for not wearing a seat belt, the clear interpretation under our law is, that's what you were stopped for. Because no one could ever prove they were actually stopped for something else.''

David Shaw, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety, said officer discretion probably accounts for most of the 27,000 cases in which drivers were ticketed solely for not buckling up. But other scenarios, while rare, were also possible, he said.

A driver could be charged with a crime, such as drunken driving, as well as a seat belt violation. The criminal charge would be issued separately, making it appear as if the seat belt violation was the only offense. Or, he said, a driver could be charged with five traffic offenses. Because only four fit on a ticket, the fifth, if it were a seat belt violation, would appear on a separate ticket.

The most recent attempt to strengthen seat belt laws died in 2001, after lawmakers defeated the bill in a rare tie vote. Opponents argued that a primary seat belt law, allowing police to stop drivers for only that reason, infringed on civil liberties and could encourage racial profiling by giving police another reason to stop drivers.

Massachusetts does have a primary belt law for children 12 and under, and a car-seat requirement for children under 5 who weigh less than 40 pounds. Police don't need another reason to stop drivers who leave children unbuckled.

Those infractions were not included in the 27,000 tickets examined by the Globe.

Traffic safety advocates have said that tougher laws for adults would boost seat belt use by 17 percentage points in Massachusetts, preventing about 25 deaths and 4,000 to 6,000 injuries a year. Historically, Massachusetts has ranked near the bottom nationally in seat belt use.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/24/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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