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Bikers score helmet victory at Court of Appeals

A dozen motorcyclists convicted of violating Virginia’s mandatory helmet law had their convictions reversed by the state Court of Appeals Tuesday. Three other bikers had helmet convictions affirmed.

The 15 defendants all were wearing headgear of some kind when they attended the 2011 Virginia Beach Bike Classic, but police claimed the riders’ helmets failed to meet the state’s standards. All 15 were convicted in general district court and in circuit court.

On appeal, things got a little easier for some of the riders. The state acknowledged the lower courts were in error in 13 of the 15 cases.

Virginia’s helmet law, Code §46.2-910, requires helmets to meet any of three published standards but does not require any marks or labels to show compliance. Ten of the convictions addressed in Bennett v. Commonwealth were based solely on a lack of labeling, so those convictions were reversed.

One rider wore what a trooper described as a “toy” helmet with a plastic chin strap held together with a key ring. The state argued the key ring flunked one published standard, but the court of appeals panel said the state failed to rule out compliance with the other standards, so that conviction also was reversed.

As often demonstrated in criminal cases, a defendant’s own admissions can be the strongest evidence for the state. In three cases, the riders admitted to a trooper that they knew their headgear was not the real deal. One lid even had a label identifying it as a “novelty helmet,” not for road use. For those three bikers, the trip to the Court of Appeals was fruitless. Convictions affirmed.

The three-judge panel drew a fine line with one remaining biker, however. The defendant told the trooper he knew his helmet was a novelty helmet – but that statement alone was not enough to establish it failed to meet any of the safety standards, the court held. That biker’s conviction was reversed.

“My clients were happy,” said defense lawyer Matt Danielson, a member of a Richmond-based “motorcycle law group.”

Danielson said the helmet tickets stemmed from targeted enforcement at the Virginia Beach bike rally and not from a “protest ride” or any organized test of the Virginia law.

Danielson said his personal view is that adult riders should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to wear helmets. He said 31 states give riders that choice. “I think it’s about time Virginia comes into that camp as well,” he said.

-By Peter Vieth

4 comments

  1. no list, no law!

  2. Surely a state that fought a federal law, arguing that it was unconstitutional to mandate purchasing a privately sold product, would compel its citizens to do so. Hypocrites form a line now.

  3. The bikers didn’t score a major victory here. No need to make motorcycle saftey helmets optional, just address the loopholes a few of them managed to wiggle through.

    The state law does specify what constitutes a proper motorcycle saftey helemt. Those convictions were dismissed over technicalities in how the troopers determined all those helmets were improper. That can easily be remedied by the state Legislature with minor revisions of the law and by training police officers in the proper way to enforce it.

    The state should not cave in to the demands of the motorcycle rights lobby and allow itself to be tricked by their loophole exploiting shenanigans. It should do whatever it takes to uphold the rule of law, close those loopholes, and improve it’s enforceability.

  4. The best choice for legislators would be to actually analyze the research before developing legislation. If they did that and did not allow themselves to be swayed by the powerful insurance lobbyists and personal perception regarding motorcyclists, it most likely they would conclude that helmets do not save lives. Helmets are inanimate; therefore, helmets can not “do” anything. The fact is that accident avoidance is the only way to reduce the injuries and deaths associated with motorcycle riding. Furthermore, the ratio of deaths to accidents does not change with a mandatory law. In some instances, it has risen. Look at the statistics in California before making statements in favor of a mandatory helmet law.

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