A 16-year community initiative has drawn to a close in Craig, and Tony St. John isn’t happy about it.
“A few bad apples have ruined a great program,” St. John said.
St. John was speaking of the Craig Police Safety Belt Awareness Program he organized in 1994, and a few drivers who had inadvertently been caught with illicit materials. This month, the Craig Police Department ended the program, citing changes in “case law.”
The program, organized by St. John, local merchants and the Craig Police Department, had rewarded high school students for wearing seatbelts.
“If the police department saw (a school-aged driver) wearing a seatbelt, they’d hit him with the sirens and lights, scare the heck out of him and pull him over,” St. John said.
Next, St. John explained, the officer would approach the car’s window and present the driver with a prize — often a gift certificate to a local store.
Recently, however, the act of stopping drivers for good behavior had resulted in some legal limbo for police officers, said Chief Walt Vanatta of Craig Police Department.
“We were finding that officers would stop someone to give them a safety belt award and, for example, see marijuana lying on the seat,” Vanatta said.
This puts officers in a tough spot, said Vanatta.
“It creates an ethical dilemma,” Vanatta said. “Do you walk away (from the vehicle) knowing there is a criminal act occurring, or do you make an arrest knowing (the case is) going to be overturned?”
Vanatta explained that a traffic stop resulting in an arrest must begin with probable cause.
“We (need) a legal reason to stop (cars),” Vanatta said. “Either their turn signals didn’t work, they did a lane violation (or) they were speeding.
“With the seatbelt program, we were stopping young people just because they were wearing a seatbelt, which is not technically a legal reason to stop them.”
Any violations that officers discovered afterward would have been “fruits of a poisonous tree,” Vanatta said.
“If you have an illegal (traffic stop), anything you get after that is not admissible in court.”
As a result, Vanatta said his officers had grown reluctant to stop MCHS students.
Asked if such predicaments had occurred to St. John during the planning of his program, St. John said no.
“Never,” St. John said. “I never thought of that happening. I never gave it a second thought.”
St. John’s planning in 1994 was spurred by a fatal car crash.
A rollover accident had killed a Moffat County High School student, a friend of St. John’s son. The student wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
“It was just unbelievable to me,” St. John recalled. “I went to work (after learning of the accident) and I cried all day. I kept thinking, how can we get these kids to wear their seatbelts?”
Later that day, St. John began speaking to Craig merchants about a rewards program.
“Everyone I spoke to was on board,” St. John said.
And thus began a 16-year program that St. John called “successful.”
“It’s been years since we’ve had a high school student die in a car crash,” St. John said.
Vanatta said that ending the program has downsides for his department as well.
“It allowed for positive contact between law enforcement and young people, instead of just getting in trouble,” Vanatta said.
Vanatta was optimistic that seatbelt use among MCHS students would continue without St. John’s program.
“I would really hope (students wear seatbelts) anyway just because it’s a commonsense thing to do,” Vanatta said. “And frankly, this (program) started before seatbelts were required. Now it’s law.”