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Supreme Court to Consider Police Searches Following Seat Belt Offenses

February 18, 2002
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Supreme Court to Consider Police Searches Following Seat Belt Offenses

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A state law is under scrutiny from the state Supreme Court after prosecutors appealed a decision that found a man cannot be arrested for drunken driving if he was pulled over for failure to wear a seat belt.

The law, enacted in the 1980s, was designed to prevent overzealous police officers from conducting illegal searches and seizures of motorists not wearing seat belts. The law forbids police from "inspecting" a vehicle and driver who has been stopped solely for a seat belt violation.

Jefferson Parish prosecutors appealed to the high court after the state 5th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled in favor of Tenna Benoit, 31, who was pulled over in Marrero in October 2000 for not wearing a seat belt. The deputy then suspected Benoit, of Avondale, of driving drunk. The deputy arrested him after Benoit failed a field sobriety test and refused to take a breath analysis test.

With two prior DWI convictions, Benoit was facing one to five years in prison as a third-offender felon. District Judge Steve Windhorst upheld the legitimacy of the arrest in a pretrial hearing last year and defense attorney Chris Edwards took the case to the 5th Circuit.

The 5th Circuit threw out Benoit's arrest on Aug. 21 and the Jefferson Parish district attorneys office appealed to the high court, which said recently it will hear the case.

Prosecutor Terry Boudreaux said in his brief to the Supreme Court that the appellate court's interpretation "is not only wrong, it is absurd and literally dangerous.

"It takes little imagination to consider the understandable outrage should a police officer stop a drunken driver for not wearing a seat belt, ignore obvious evidence of intoxication and allow the drunken driver to drive away only to cause some horrific accident. Society would scream for the officer to be fired and criminally charged himself."

Edwards disagrees, and cites the state seat belt law, which reads, "A law enforcement officer may not search or inspect a motor vehicle, its contents, the driver or a passenger solely because of a violation of this section."

"In this case, the officer first requested defendant to exit the vehicle, then detected signs of intoxication. The statute prohibits an arrest under these facts," 5th Circuit Judges James Cannella and James Gulotta wrote in their ruling. Judge Walter "Wally" Rothschild dissented.

Boudreaux said the deputy did not inspect Benoit but "merely observed what was in plain view after he effected the lawful stop. This was obviously not a search. Neither was it an inspection."

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