At 9 a.m. on the 17th of this month, I will appear before the august Monroe Court Circuit Court in the case of The People v. Christopher Orlet. My diabolical crime: not wearing a seatbelt.
Had this been a speeding ticket, or had I run a stop sign, I would have paid the fine without protest. But there is something about the illegalization of failing to buckle up, something about the government supposedly protecting me from my half-witted self that stuck in my craw.
I recognize this is a minor issue. It’s not like I am crusading for the life of an innocent man on death row. I am no Dreyfus accused of treason. I am not even a Scopes, indicted for teaching the heathen Darwin. Indeed, the whole matter seems silly from start to finish. Silly that such an act was passed. Silly that I refuse to simply pay the fine like the other sheep, and even sillier that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s columnist Bill McClellan (my Zola, my Mencken) has arranged to cover my trial.
Before I am deluged with emails charging that seatbelts save lives and lower insurance rates (so does smoking, let’s outlaw that while we’re at it) allow me to say that I wholeheartedly agree. I am a seatbelt booster. I wear mine 99.9 percent of the time and recommend you wear your belt and your helmet every minute of the day, particularly in the bath (two out of five accidents in the home occur in the bath). I am all for educating the public about safety, but here I draw the line.
If it could, the State would doubtless ban everything potentially harmful. And in time it very well may. The clear and present threat to public safety is the cigarette. However the State is well aware that there would be a wholesale rebellion among what we once called the “nicotine fiends,” to say nothing of the tobacco lobby. Therefore the State is slowly and masterly whittling away at smokers’ rights until the smoker is too weak to resist. After cigarettes, the State will doubtless go after Big Macs or skydiving.
I AM NOW BUSILY preparing my case. (I am no lawyer and my brother, the intellectual property attorney, has advised me to throw myself on the mercy of the court. Fat chance!) I suspect the judge will prevent me from raising the constitutional issue. After all, I am to appear before a rural county circuit court (think Dayton, Tenn.) and not the U.S. Supreme Court. This is unfortunate because the Supremes have yet to address this issue properly, though several state courts have taken on the somewhat similar motorcycle helmet laws. In State v. Solomon, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded that helmet laws were constitutional because they “directly related to highway safety: because an unprotected motorcycle operator could be affected by roadway hazards, temporarily lose control and become a menace to other motorists.” Obviously the same doesn’t apply to seatbelts. The court also concluded that the “self-injury may be of such a nature to also invoke a general public concern.” Again, I’m still not sure why we have to outlaw everything that causes the public “concern.”
Otherwise precedent seems to be on the side of the pro-choice seatbelt faction. To wit: (1) The U.S. Supreme Court, in International Union, et al. v. Johnson Controls, Inc., confirmed a person’s right to determine his or her own individual personal health care standards (it is no crime not to take your meds). (2) Laws must be applied consistently or they violate the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause. (A good example is the apparent exemption is Illinois and Florida for motorcycle helmets. I’d rather take my chances unbuckled in a car with airbags than on a Harley without a helmet.) (3) The 4th Amendment guarantees the right of persons to be secure in one’s own “persons…papers and effects.” But that one has been trimmed back so many times (roadblocks and such) that it is pointless to bring it up. And speaking of rights, how often does one hear the idiotic: “Driving is a privilege, not a right”? The courts abandoned that distinction in the early '60s.
Equally insulting is how our tax dollars are wasted on the enforcement of this asinine law. California recently received $1.5 million for billboards and commercials promoting its “Click-it” campaign. This largess might have gone to build safer highways, increase traffic police presence, or to fix falling-down bridges. Anyway, don’t our troopers have better things to do?
Like Scopes, I expect to be found guilty, not least because in some states a portion of the fine goes to the county judge pension fund (can you say “conflict of interest”?). I do not intend to dispute the charges (although that would seem to be the best strategy). Scopes did not deny that he broke the law; he simply thought the law unconstitutional. Eventually he was proven right. And later he was portrayed heroically on stage and on screen, and lauded in the history books.
That said, if this thing makes it to Broadway, Brad Pitt would be my choice to play me.
Christopher Orlet, a frequent contributor, runs the Existential Journalism blog.
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