Big weekend for seat belt enforcement, but at what cost?

Police departments throughout the suburbs have begun flooding the streets with scores of extra officers ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

They aren't anticipating a crime wave. Instead, they are targeting seat belt scofflaws.

While police say they are saving lives with the annual crackdown, it comes at a cost - up to $129 spent on each seat belt violation that yields up to $25 in fines for the municipality, according to an analysis of Illinois Department of Transportation records.

The funds come from IDOT's Sustained Traffic Enforcement Program grants, or STEP grants, that amounted to $261,930 for 41 suburbs in the weeks surrounding last Memorial Day.

Critics, including some defense lawyers, legislators and even police, complain the grant program teeters on the edge of violating constitutional rights and creates a quota system for the officers assigned to the detail.

"The biggest concern I have is it strips away officer discretion," said Aurora police Cmdr. Joe Groom, whose department does not participate in the program. "If their task is to have X amount of seat belt tickets and they're an hour away from their shift ending, you've taken away all discretion they have in how to handle the (traffic) stop."

State transportation officials said they do not impose ticketing mandates for departments to be reimbursed, but do set enforcement goals. Failing to meet the goals could threaten future participation in the program that helps pay departmental overtime costs, they say.

"If they tell us they're not seeing seat belt violations, we'd have to take that into consideration next year," said Dan Kent, an IDOT law enforcement liaison.

Last year, the 41 suburban departments used the grant funds to issue 5,986 citations during the Memorial Day enforcement period, according to an IDOT report. While police nabbed 135 drunken drivers and issued another 2,532 tickets for offenses like speeding, no insurance or driving with a suspended license, 55 percent of citations - 3,319 of them - were distributed for "occupancy restraint" violations.

If all of the seat belt tickets were paid by offenders, the fines would amount to $82,975. That doesn't include the additional $35 in court fees charged for almost every seat belt violation guilty plea.

"We're not trying to receive dollar for dollar with the cost of the ticket we're issuing," said Naperville police Sgt. Lee Martin. "The goal of these grants is not to make money, but take drunk drivers and those not using occupant restraint devices, and get them to change their behavior or get them off the road."

Some departments were thriftier than others, according to the IDOT report. North Aurora police spent $3,126 to issue 142 citations of all kinds, averaging $22.02 per ticket. Officers there issued 60 seat belt tickets during the 2011 campaign. Meanwhile, in Kildeer, officers spent $2,065 to issue 16 tickets, averaging $129 per ticket. Those Kildeer officers issued no seat belt citations during the 18-day campaign.

In terms of efficiency, Elk Grove Village issued a total of 162 tickets during the campaign, 97.5 percent of which were for seat belt violations. That department spent $7,511, averaging $46.36 a ticket. Elgin police spent the most and wrote the most tickets. The additional police patrols there cost $19,920 and resulted in 571 tickets, to average $34.89 per ticket. However, only 37 percent were seat belt violations.

Ultimately, the funding for the enforcement campaigns comes from the federal government, but the state provides reimbursement to police agencies and then relies on the federal government to cover the state's costs.

Illinois Sen. John Millner, a Carol Stream Republican who is a member of the state Senate transportation committee, said the legislature should look into revising the grant program "based on the many questions that have arisen with the grants and quotas."

Millner said he spoke with state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Cicero Democrat and head of the Illinois Senate transportation committee, about forming a traffic safety subcommittee.

"It's an issue we need to revisit, especially in these very difficult financial times," Millner said.

There are other reasons to re-examine the effectiveness of the campaigns, says Donald Ramsell, a defense attorney based in DuPage County. He called seat belt enforcement campaigns "intimidation" and "Gestapo tactics."

"With the seats belts - wink-wink, nudge-nudge - the reason they're doing that is it's a very convenient way to run a check on anything," he said.

Ramsell claimed tickets issued during these enforcement campaigns are easier to get out of than tickets issued during other times because of the methods police employ and the "quotas" that are instituted. Police departments increase enforcement around all major holidays.

"I have won cases where that has come into play," he said. "That does work."

While police contend that increased enforcement of seat belt laws has resulted in higher use by motorists, Ramsell challenges that assumption, saying technology like constant beeping inside cars if seat belts aren't fastened has done more to boost compliance.

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