Click it or ticket? Camblos says "stick it"

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the past three months, county police conducted six "safety checkpoints" (read: traffic stops) as part of a campaign called "Click It or Ticket." And ticket they did: 52 people were cited during the stops for not wearing seatbelts, according to a county press release.

There's just one problem: Such zealous enforcement of seat belt use is "not appropriate" (read: probably illegal) at safety checkpoints, according to Jim Camblos, county Commonwealth's Attorney.

Thanks to a narrow 48-49 vote in the House of Delegates this spring, failure to buckle up remains a "secondary offense," and state law does not permit police officers to stop motorists for violations of secondary offenses. Police must stop the vehicle for another reason in order to legally cite a driver for failure to be buckled in.

The fact that motorists were being stopped and ticketed for seat belt violations was news to Camblos. "I just became aware of this 10 minutes ago," he said around 10am Thursday, June 5.

Asked how the campaign could be up and running without his knowledge, Camblos replied, "The police work for the chief. They don't run everything by me."

The chief, John Miller, seemed to have no doubt that issuing summonses for seat belt violations as part of a routine safety stop was perfectly kosher. Had he cleared the ticketing with Camblos?

"Absolutely," replied the chief about 10:30 Thursday morning, adding that police planned to continue the stops "right on through the summer."

Delegate Rob Bell explained his vote against the Governor Mark Warner-backed bill saying, "I don't think it's the role of the government to protect adult citizens from themselves." But Bell compared the "Click it or Ticket" campaign to sobriety checkpoints, noting, "The Supreme Court has said that you have to have probable cause to stop someone, but if you do it in a way that stops everyone, I don't see where there would be a problem."

Apparently Camblos read the law differently. His assessment that tickets issued for seat belt infractions are legal only if a motorist is cited for another infraction at the same time has sent police scrambling to review the 52 summonses. Cases in which the seat belt violations involved other charges "will continue to move forward with the seat belt violation intact," according to the press release.

Cases where the seat belt violation was the only violation charged to the motorist will be dismissed, undoubtedly good news for however many of the 52 folks the police say they will now contact.

How to explain the miscommunication between the county attorney and his chief of police?

"The way Jim discussed it with us, we thought we had a valid reason to stop a car," Miller says. "We thought just their coming through the checkpoint was enough to give us the authority to cite them for a seatbelt violation."

Miller says not only does he still plan to continue the "Click it or Ticket" program, but he plans to get a second opinion about its legality he's asking the Attorney General for a written opinion about the procedure.

People who were ticketed only for seatbelt violations can expect a call from the police notifying them that the charges are being dismissed.

Will they also get an apology? "Absolutely," says Chief Miller. "It was my decision to implement the policy, and I'll certainly tell them we apologize for the misunderstanding."