Drivers nabbed without seatbelts allowed to raise due diligence defence

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TORONTO - Drivers charged with failing to buckle up should be allowed to argue they did everything they could to comply with the law mandating seatbelt use, Ontario's top court ruled Friday.

In its decision, the Court of Appeal rejected the idea that the seatbelt law bars a motorist from raising due diligence as a defence.

"In the admittedly rare case where the driver has done his or her best to comply (with the law), the injustice of conviction without fault is avoided," the court stated.

The case arose in September 2011 when police in Burlington, Ont., ticketed Tyler Wilson under Section 106(2) of the Highway Traffic Act for not wearing his seatbelt.

At trial, Wilson testified a coffee he had put in a back-seat cup-holder was spilling on his laptop. He said he had just pulled up to a stop sign and removed his seatbelt so he could straighten the coffee cup when the officer spotted the infraction.

Wilson went on to say that there was no other traffic around and it was his intention to put the seatbelt back on as soon as he had fixed the cup.

However, the justice of the peace interrupted his testimony to say the offence was one of "absolute liability," meaning that no excuses — even if reasonable — could get him off.

Wilson appealed to the Ontario court of justice and won on the basis that the offence was not one of "absolute liability" but rather one of "strict liability."

The Crown appealed to the province's top court, with the attorney general arguing in part that the requirement to buckle up is an uncomplicated, one-step action fully within the driver's personal and physical control.

In rejecting that argument, the appellate court said it was not impossible to imagine a situation in which a driver became unbuckled despite having taken reasonable steps to secure the belt.

Instead, the Appeal Court found that deeming the seatbelt offence one of "strict liability" still enables "efficient and effective enforcement of important public safety legislation while avoiding the injustice of no-fault liability."

In other words, the prosecution still only needs to show a driver was not buckled up to get a conviction, but the accused should be able to offer a due-diligence defence.

"Situations in which a defence of due diligence arise are bound to be rare," the Appeal Court said.

"A defence of due diligence to this charge would only be made out where, although the driver was found not wearing his or her seat belt when driving, the driver had taken all reasonable care to wear the seat belt."

The court did not weigh in on the merits of Wilson's particular excuse.

Geographic location: Ontario, TORONTO, Burlington

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