Conviction Reversal for Not Using Shoulder Harness Safety Belt in NY

In People v. Cucinello (183 Misc 2d 50), the Appellate Term ruled that a conviction should be reversed where the defendant did not wear the shoulder harness safety belt in conjunction with the lap safety belt. The person did not use the shoulder harness because it crossed his front too high to be comfortable. The court concluded, after noting that the 1992 vehicle "was equipped with lap and shoulder belts which were not one piece," "The question of whether defendant was guilty of violating the subject provision because her son was wearing a lap belt and leaving the shoulder harness unconnected, however, requires a careful perusal of the statutory language itself. Vehicle and Traffic Law 1229-c (2) uses the term, 'safety belt,' in the singular when it states, 'No person shall operate a motor vehicle unless all front seat passengers under the age of sixteen are restrained by a safety belt'. While the term, 'safety belt,' is not expressly defined in the statute, said term can refer to either 'seat safety belts' or 'shoulder harness safety belts' (see, Vehicle and Traffic Law 383 [4-a], [5]; 15 NYCRR 49.2 [b]). "Inasmuch as defendant's son was restrained by a safety belt, viz., a seat safety belt, defendant should not have been deemed in violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law 1229-c." ( People v. Cucinello, supra, at 51.) Vehicle and Traffic Law 1229-c (3) is an act which is malum prohibitum being a regulatory law. In Matter of Asheroff v. Parking Violations Bur. (38 AD2d 474, 477), the Court stated: "We are dealing with a regulation which is malum prohibitum. Statutes or regulations of this character are expected to clearly spell out what acts are deemed in violation of same. They should be strictly construed and require strict proof of the commission of the offense charged. ( People v. Werner, 174 N. Y. 132.) "In the last cited case the court said (p. 134): 'The general rule that the criminal intention is the essence of the crime does not apply to such prohibited acts; but while that is so, such statutes ought to be strictly construed and the People required to give strict proof of the commission of the offense.' "In People v. Benc (288 N. Y. 318, 323), the court said: 'Statutes which are penal in character must be narrowly and strictly construed and in manner not to embrace cases which do not clearly fall within their terms ... "Acts otherwise innocent and lawful, do not become crimes, unless there is a clear and positive expression of the legislative intent to make them criminal" ( People v. Shakun, 251 N. Y. 107, 113). "Also, see, People v. Vetri (309 N. Y. 401, 406) where the court cited with approval a statement appearing in the opinion of People v. Phyfe (136 N. Y. 554): ' "The citizen is entitled to an unequivocal warning before conduct on his part, which is not malum in se, can be made the occasion of a deprivation of his liberty or property." ' " (See, People v. Mobil Oil Corp., 48 NY2d 192, 200 [in which Asheroff is quoted].)