THOMPSON FALLS — A one-time candidate for the Republican nomination to Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives went on trial here last week in front of a packed courtroom in the Sanders County Courthouse.
Don’t be surprised if you hadn’t heard anything about it. The bench trial was over a $20 seat belt ticket.
But to Mark French, who mounted an uphill battle against then-incumbent Denny Rehberg for the GOP nomination in 2010, it was about much more than a $20 ticket.
He says it’s about government overreach, and he says that leads to such things as Obamacare, gun control and government deciding how large a soda pop you can purchase.
“Where does it end?” French asks. “It doesn’t, there’s no end to it.”
Americans have to draw a line in the sand at some point, French says, and the seat belt ticket gave him his line.
“Why is a seat belt required to be worn to keep us safe in a car, but not on a bus?” French wrote in an email encouraging local residents to show up in the courtroom to support his cause. “Why are we allowed to rock climb, snow ski, water ski, hang glide, hunt and eat candy bars? Why is it not unlawful to refuse medical advice?
“Are we ready to be told by government that we cannot drink an extra large pop?”
French, a lab technician at Clark Fork Valley Hospital in Plains and a tea party activist, says the law requiring drivers and occupants of a vehicle to wear seat belts violates Montana’s Constitution, and that officers who issue citations for it are violating the oath they took to uphold that, and the U.S., constitutions.
In general, courts have disagreed. The Illinois Supreme Court, for instance, has ruled that driving on public roads is a privilege, not a right, and can be regulated. Other courts have noted the potential cost to taxpayers if a person is more severely injured in a crash because they weren’t wearing a seat belt.
The irony is that French says he usually buckles up.
But on May 5 of this year, he says he was spraying for weeds on his property when he got in his vehicle and pulled onto Montana Highway 200 to make the 2 1/2-mile trip back to his home.
Traveling in the opposite direction from the east, Montana Highway Patrolman Steve Spurr testified he observed a white car with no front license plate pass him. The rear plate, Spurr said, had a protective cover that made it difficult to see the plate number.
Both are traffic violations.
Spurr turned around and testified he observed French pull his retractable shoulder seat belt out and buckle up after the patrolman turned on his emergency lights.
He pulled French over.
French was unable to produce a driver’s license or proof of insurance, although he is licensed and does carry insurance. Spurr says he explained to French that he stopped him because of the license plate issues.
French, who had asked permission to exit his vehicle, then began breaking off the cover over the rear license plate, although Spurr told him he could wait until he got home to remove it.
The patrolman gave French warnings for the obstructed plate and for having no proof of insurance, and cited him for the seat belt violation.
Montana law says officers cannot stop a driver solely for not wearing a seat belt, but the citation for not wearing one can be written if a driver is pulled over for a separate traffic violation.
French represented himself in court last Wednesday. Justice of the Peace Donald Strine made it clear that the only thing the trial was concerned with was “whether Mr. French was wearing a seat belt on May 5, 2013.”
“This is not the venue,” Strine said, “to argue the law of wearing a seat belt.”
Spurr was the only witness to testify. Sanders County deputy prosecutor Amy Kenison questioned Spurr about his oath of office to uphold the Montana and U.S. constitutions, and whether that oath limits his authority.
“Yes,” Spurr replied. His job, he said is “to make sure the law is obeyed.”
Kenison, Spurr, French and Strine watched a video of the traffic stop that the audience in the crowded courtroom couldn’t see.
When it was his turn to question Spurr, French tried several different approaches.
He suggested he could have been wearing a lap belt that wouldn’t have been visible to the patrolman, and questioned whether he had ever admitted to not wearing a seat belt during the traffic stop.
He asked whether the officer had taken his paperwork back to his patrol car and whether that was allowed, which Kenison objected to on the grounds of relevancy.
French asked if Spurr was “bound to uphold every law,” to which Spurr replied, “You’re asking if I have discretion, and I do.”
“I was glad to hear him say that,” French said later, adding that discretion should have included not writing him up for the seat belt violation.
How about the provision that allows an exemption for people who make frequent stops in the performance of their official job duties? French wondered.
“Did I tell you I’m spraying weeds? Would you consider that work?” French asked Spurr.
Kenison objected again, saying, “It’s not the patrolman’s job to interpret the law.”
“I don’t want this to be based on exempting a worker” anyway, French decided.
His next question to Spurr also drew an objection from Kenison.
“Why don’t we just have a king?” French started to ask the highway patrolman.
Article 2, Section 28 of the Montana Constitution reads, “Laws for the punishment of crime shall be founded on the principles of prevention and reformation. Full rights are restored by termination of state supervision for any offense against the state.”
French says this “teaches” that “there must be a victim before there is a crime.”
“Where is the victim in a seat belt violation?” French wrote. “The enforcement of that law creates a real victim. The victim’s time and money are taken from him illegally by law enforcement.”
After the trial, French was asked how far the notion that there must be a victim before there is crime extended. For example, if someone drives 100 mph through town, blowing through stop signs or traffic lights, but doesn’t hit anyone or anything, has no crime been committed because there is no victim?
“That’s threatening behavior, and threatening behavior is a crime,” French said. Wearing, or not wearing, a seat belt, should be up to the individual, he says.
He also argues that the seatbelt law violates Montanans’ right to privacy as spelled out in Article 2, Section 10, and flies in the face of the Declaration of Independence.
“The purpose of government is to secure our rights, not to remove them,” French wrote.
French is a Missoula native who grew up on the family ranch near Paradise, graduated from Montana State University with a degree in microbiology, and interned at the Duke University School of Medicine.
He’s not been shy about his beliefs, nor going to bat for them.
In 2010 he ran against Rehberg, himself a self-avowed conservative, because he felt Rehberg wasn’t conservative enough, and got 19.5 percent of the vote – 25,344 of them – in a three-way race for the GOP nomination.
Rehberg “has had plenty of time to prove his mettle and vote to be fiscally and constitutionally responsible,” French said in his campaign against the incumbent, who won the primary with 96,796 votes, or 75 percent. “He has done neither.”
In 2011, French lost a bid to become chairman of the Montana Republican Party to Will Deshamps, 139-40.
His seatbelt trial went the same way.
Strine found him guilty, fined him $20, imposed another $50 in court costs and also ordered French to pay for the overtime Spurr put in to testify at the trial.
“I understand your way of thinking, that government should not be allowed to tell us what to do,” Strine said.
But, Strine added, he spent 28 years in law enforcement and too often saw the results of crashes where people weren’t wearing seat belts, including “digging a baby out from underneath a car” because it wasn’t properly restrained.
“People need to wear seat belts,” Strine told French.
French said an appeal to District Court will depend on whether he can get a jury trial there.
“I won’t appeal to another judge,” French said. “Regardless, I’m going to do my best to find someone to run against Justice Strine in the 2014 election. He revealed who he is and how he operates in that courtroom.”
“I work at a hospital, and I’ve seen the carnage alcohol and drugs cause,” he went on. “So, maybe we ought to outlaw alcohol … oh wait, we tried that, it doesn’t work. Maybe we ought to outlaw drugs … oh, I guess they’re already illegal, but that doesn’t stop people from using them.”
Freedom, French said, “can be a scary thing. We’ve got to give people the choice to make bad decisions, or we don’t live in America.”