N.J. high court upholds license-plate decal for young drivers

Posted: August 06, 2012

Young drivers in New Jersey must continue to display controversial red decals on their license plates after the state's high court Monday found the law constitutionally sound.

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled the requirement, known as Kyleigh's Law, does not violate privacy laws or constitute unreasonable search and seizure, the same conclusions previously reached by the state appellate court.

The decision has not ended the controversy, as a North Jersey lawyer vowed to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, insisting that the decals make young drivers vulnerable to prowling pedophiles. Those who lobbied for the legislation maintain that the decals help police enforce laws that keep teens safe.

"I intend to keep pushing" to repeal the decal provision through legislative means, said Assemblyman Sean Kean (R., Monmouth). "It's one of those examples of big brother telling parents how to keep their kids safe and how to run their lives."

Kean was an initial supporter of the decals but said he had received an overwhelmingly negative response from constituents.

Pam Fischer, former director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety who now works for the Teen Safe Driving Coalition, said her organization was pleased with the court's decision.

"We want to make sure that teens know we are very, very serious about these provisions, and the law will be enforced," said Fischer, whose son will test for his driver's license next week on his 17th birthday. "The number-one thing that is killing our kids are car crashes."

Last year, 44 people ages 16 through 20 were killed in New Jersey car accidents in which a teenager was driving, compared with 35 fatalities in 2010.

The decal law is named after 16-year-old Kyleigh D'Alessio of Morris County, who died in a 2006 accident involving a car driven by a newly licensed teenage friend. Two other teen passengers also died.

Passed in 2010, the law also requires drivers under 21 who have permits or one-year probationary licenses to observe an 11 p.m. curfew, refrain from using handheld devices, and have no more than one young passenger.

There is a $100 fine for failure to display the Velcro decal, which can be removed by older drivers. Teens cannot get a driver's license without first obtaining the $4 decal. More than 830,000 decals have been purchased since the law passed.

"There are lots of kids who are doing the right thing," Fischer said. "This [court decision] helps them do the right thing."

Andy Drago, 19, of Cherry Hill, recalled getting the decals, and "I took them off pretty quickly." His friends, he said, did the same; he said he thinks the law is pointless.

Lisanne Petrella of Maple Shade said she would not insist that her 17-year-old son, Matt, display the decals when he gets his license in November.

"There are a lot of sick people out there," Petrella said. "It's putting our children at risk."

Anne Marie Solomon of Swedesboro said she had "no problem" with the law and expected her 16-year-old son to use the decals when he gets his license.

A driver of two months, Megan Lee, 17, of Atco, said that although the decals could make teens a target for ticketing, she did not mind using them.

"It's safer for teens," Lee said. "I would keep them on because I know that it would make my mom feel safer."

According to the state Office of Administrative Courts, 4,657 decal tickets were issued from April 2010 through June, compared with 3,786 for having excess underage passengers, 6,687 for curfew violations, and 385 for phone use.

After the law passed, North Jersey lawyer Gregg D. Trautmann sued the state on behalf of his son, who was then 16. His daughter has just received her license. Trautmann said his son did not use the decals, and neither will his daughter.

"I think girls become targeted by rapists and creeps," Trautmann said. Boys, he said, are challenged by show-offs and could become victims of road rage.

In his lawsuit, Trautmann contended that being stopped as a result of the decals equated to illegal search and seizure. He also argued that the decals identified the age of drivers even though federal law forbids the release of personal information.

The state Supreme Court, however, ruled that "a driver's age group" does not constitute restricted personal information and the "decals don't give rise to unreasonable search and seizure because they are plainly visible and don't require police officers to stop and search a vehicle."

"We're not willing to give up the fight," Trautmann said. "I do plan to petition the U.S. Supreme Court as soon as I can get the paperwork done."

The New Jersey Attorney General's Office defended the state against the lawsuit. A study last year conducted by that office found one reported instance in which an underage driver with a decal was stopped by someone impersonating a police officer.

Trautmann said he believes there are probably numerous other unreported cases.

Jeffrey Nadel, vice president of the National Youth Rights Association, has been speaking against the law since before it went into effect in 2010.

"When you're 18, you're an adult for every purpose under the sun, except for drinking alcohol," Nadel said. "Yet New Jersey thinks you're insufficiently prepared as a driver and therefore need to be branded with a scarlet letter."

Contact Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838 or bboyer@phillynews.com.

This article includes information from the Associated Press.

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