December 7, 2004

Judge's helmet-law ruling leaves cops, courts and biker confused
By CATHY REDFERN Sentinel staff writer

SANTA CRUZ - In a decision both sides call baffling, a judge recently ruled that a Soquel man's tickets for not wearing a motorcycle helmet can be considered "fix-it" tickets, seemingly erasing any fine or mark on his driving record for violations that are not normally considered fixable.

Richard Quigley, 60, a self-described "freedom fighter," has been challenging the state's helmet law for years.

The former Libertarian candidate for Congress rides a Harley while sporting a baseball cap, claiming the "smoke and mirrors" state helmet law does not adequately specify what constitutes an acceptable helmet.

Beyond that, Quigley says he does not believe the government has the right to tell him what to wear. In the latest twist in the long-running fight, Quigley represented himself in a court challenge to nine helmet tickets given by California Highway Patrol and Watsonville Police officers.

Judge Michael Barton ruled Nov. 19 that eight tickets were correctable and put Quigley on notice that his "head gear doesn't comply." A ninth ticket, when Quigley admittedly wore nothing on his head, will be decided at a Dec. 27 hearing.

Also by Dec. 27, he must show proof of compliance, i.e. signed off tickets, or face a possible fine, said prosecutor Gretchen Brock. She called the ruling confusing and said she hopes for clarification by reading it or talking to Barton at the next hearing.

"I don't know who would sign off on it," Brock said. "I don't believe it's legally correct. How do you go back and correct that you weren't wearing a helmet months ago?" Fix-it tickets require no fine and leave no mark on a person's record, Brock said. Helmet tickets carry a $127 fine, court documents show.

Quigley also said he was unclear on the ruling and was studying the ramifications of getting the tickets signed off - if he can. He said he went to the Aptos CHP office recently to see what would be required, but got no clear answer.

An Aptos CHP spokesman declined comment, pending review of the ruling. CHP headquarters say helmet violations are not correctable.

"They haven't been in the past," spokesman Steve Kohler said.

What's in a helmet? Quigley is clear on one thing - he will challenge the ruling that his "helmet" does not comply.

"My helmet is in all ways compliant with California's helmet law, as ridiculous as that might seem," he said.

Quigley says he could make a helmet with a Dixie cup and a string and put a Department of Transportation sticker on it and it would satisfy the law.

But Brock said Barton shot down that argument.

It stems, she said, from the state helmet law's reference to federal Department of Transportation regulations. The regulations don't specify helmet attributes, but outline tests for manufacturers who can self-certify that their helmets passed the tests, officials said.

Brock said one of the tests is that helmets withstand being struck by a metal anvil without depressing. A soft cap obviously would not pass that test.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration makes spot checks to ensure helmet makers comply with the regulations, and acknowledges police complain of trouble proving noncompliance due to fake stickers. The administration is working on new labeling.

Highway Safety Administration Rae Tyson said all states once had helmet laws, the first instituted in 1967. Twenty now require helmets. The laws have always sparked debate about personal freedom versus the societal costs of crashes, the safety administration says.

Saving lives The CHP says the law works.

"For the great majority, it's been working fine and saving lives," the CHP's Kohler said, "which is, after all, the whole point."

But Quigley scoffs at government safety statistics, saying some are rigged to benefit insurance companies.

"And after all, as I throw my leg over that bike, it's my life I'm risking," he said.

Watsonville Police Capt. Eddie Rodriguez said officers need to study the "potentially precedent-setting" ruling before signing off any tickets. They would do so if ordered by the judge, he said.

"Mr. Quigley may force the state to get very specific, so the law has no wiggle room," he said. "He is working within the system and openly challenging the law and that's how it works. You've got to give him credit for that."

Brock called it "craziness" that officers were tied up for weeks in a trial challenging the vehicle code infractions.

In October, Quigley sued Nevada over its helmet law in federal court.

In 2003, the CHP issued 642 citations statewide for violations of the helmet law, Kohler said.