A driver who fails to use a seat belt or fails to require a passenger to use one may be convicted of a criminal offense if there is an accident resulting in serious injury or death, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Sept. 18.
Kim Goupil, a 16-year-old Sussex County girl, was killed in a 2007 crash in Hampton Township caused by the driver, Kirby Lenihan, then 18. A toxicology test determined that Lenihan had been “huffing” an aerosol spray can containing a carpet deodorizer. Neither the driver nor the passenger was wearing a seat belt.
No standards specifically limit inhalant intoxication for drivers, so Lenihan was not charged for the huffing, but was instead charged under New Jersey’s 1984 Seat Belt Law.
Lenihan was charged with vehicular homicide, but she ultimately plead to the third-degree charge of recklessly causing severe bodily injury to a passenger. She was sentenced to 180 days in county jail and three years’ probation.
On appeal, Lenihan argued that her violation of the Seat Belt Law cannot serve as a basis to support a conviction for recklessly causing severe injury. However, the court said the Seat Belt Law protects “the community at large and not merely discrete individuals.” The Court noted that Lenihan admitted that her passenger was not wearing her seat belt. Thus, she knowingly violated the statute.
The incident inspired a state bill known as “Kimmie’s Law” that makes it a crime for a driver to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of any amount of a prohibited inhalant. The bill passed the Senate during the 2012-13 session, but the Assembly did not take action on it.
Co-sponsored by Senators Steven Oroho (R-Sussex) and Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the bill has been reintroduced during this legislative session.