It was a dark and terrible day for freedom.
On Wednesday last the Circuit Court in Monroe County (Illinois) dismissed my motion to have the state seat belt law declared unconstitutional. The judge didn’t even bother to look at my briefs, err… that is, the arguments I had spent weeks researching. In fact, he seemed to find the whole idea rather silly. (Commerce Clause and seatbelts? What’s the state’s attorney got to say about this? The law’s the law? Right. Next case!)
It had seemed simple enough. The seatbelt law was bad law. Here in the glorious land of the free, adult Americans should be allowed to make their own decisions about their well-being, whether it’s enjoying a fine Don Diego cigar or choking down Quarter Pounders at McDonald’s. It’s strictly a private matter, a matter of common sense. (Haw, Haw! the lawyers are guffawing. Since when does common sense play a part in the legislative or justice systems? Are you not familiar with the gun laws or the Americans with Disabilities Act that requires million-dollar elevators in homeless shelters, or what about an education system required to throw away precious resources on uneducable or delinquent children?)
So I threw common sense to the winds and based my motion to dismiss on the grounds that the seat belt law violated the Commerce Clause. A stretch, I realize, but all of the good arguments — right to privacy, due process — had been shot down by previous courts, courts that could find in the U.S. Constitution a right to commit homicide on the unborn, but no right to jeopardize your own life sans safety belts. Besides, it was the only argument left.
Briefly I argued that previous courts had found that anything that slows or hampers interstate commerce is a violation of the Commerce Clause — actually something the U.S. Supreme Court has termed the “Dormant Commerce Clause,” presumably because the Court has put the Clause on ice. I argued that out-of-state motorists or truckers entering Illinois are subject to having their operations disrupted, their costs increased, and their service slowed if they are suspected of noncompliance with the seat belt law. And I noted that this has created a situation in which the Illinois seat belt statute is “inimical to the national commerce.”
As the courtroom emptied, I heroically plodded on, boldly arguing that motorists involved in interstate commerce are subject to having their vehicle stopped by police anytime, day or night, merely on the sneaking suspicion that a seat belt is not being used. More, primary enforcement, as is currently Illinois law, encourages the use of random roadblocks, which slows and disrupts interstate commerce (though it does provide cops with a lucrative source of overtime pay). Finally I argued that the law is not applied evenly since it does not apply to buses or delivery business vehicles, but only to automobile drivers.
Sensing that I was losing my audience, I concluded by citing three examples of case law in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that states cannot — out of safety concerns — reduce the number of cars in a train, limit the size of trucks, or demand contoured mudflaps on tractor-trailers, because these measures “disrupt interstate commerce.” Good arguments, I thought, though apparently not good enough.
In the end the court found that the state’s cynical so-called safety concerns trumped Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution. (Question: If the State of Illinois is so concerned with safety why doesn’t it require motorcyclists to wear helmets? And why pass the law only after the feds threatened to withhold millions in highway dollars?) In his reluctance to overturn a bad law, the judge had in fact ignored U.S. Supreme Court precedent and showed his contempt for (or ignorance of) the formerly unassailable Commerce Clause.
For what it’s worth, the trial received some good local publicity in the St. Louis newspaper. The Post-Dispatch‘s columnist and local television pundit Bill McClellan created a stir as he schlepped through the courthouse on his way to cover my trial. “Hey, it’s the guy from TV!” And “We love you on Donnybrook” (a local Crossfire-type show). So much for my 15 minutes of fame.
After going down on the constitutional issue, I figured what the hell and pleaded guilty of the miserable crime of not wearing a seat belt. I do not anticipate an appeal. Not this time. Perhaps someone else will take up the fight. Perhaps some day you too will forget to buckle up and get ticketed, and rather than simply pay the fine like the other sheep, you will demand your day in court. If so, you could do worse than dust off the Dormant Commerce Clause. For what it’s worth you’ll have common sense, the U.S. Constitution, and me on your side.
Christopher Orlet, a frequent contributor, runs the Existential Journalist blog.