For the second time in two months, motorcyclists Wednesday failed to persuade a judge to block enforcement of the state's new mandatory helmet law, despite arguments that it violates their right to freedom of expression and subjects them to harassment by law enforcement officers.
Superior Court Judge James J. Alfano rejected a host of constitutional challenges, saying that in passing the law California legislators had a legitimate intent to protect the safety of citizens on the highways.
Higher courts have consistently held that driving motor vehicles is a privilege, not a right, and those who engage in it must endure certain regulations for the safety of all concerned, Alfano said.
Alfano admitted that the law infringes on motorcyclists' freedom of expression by imposing headgear on them, but he said such an intrusion is justified by the need to protect them from injury.
Motorcyclists who packed the small courtroom in Fullerton were disappointed with the ruling, but they roared out of the parking lot with their helmets on. The four plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit vowed to appeal.
"We'll appeal. We're not dead yet," said Peter Daniels, 46, of Glendale, one of the plaintiffs and the owner of H.G. Daniels, a chain of artists' supply stores. "I think the judge missed the point."
The point, according to the motorcyclists, was that the law infringes their right to freedom of expression and that it is too vague to be properly enforced.
Court papers included declarations from a police officer uncertain of how to determine if a helmet complied with the law's standards and riders who felt they had been repeatedly harassed by officers who stopped them on the premise of checking their helmets.
Motorcyclists had asked Alfano last Dec. 27 to block enforcement of the law temporarily, but the judge refused, saying no harm would result if it were implemented until Wednesday's hearing.
Skip Raring, a Newport Beach attorney and one of the courtroom observers, said in an interview that since the law went into effect Jan. 1, he has been stopped three times even though he was wearing a helmet clearly marked as complying with U.S. Department of Transportation standards. One of his clients, he said, was stopped and verbally abused by law enforcement officers because he had tattooed arms and wore a vest with a patch that read, "Helmet Laws Suck."
But Alfano said "the fact that some officers are abusing their code of office" does not invalidate the law. That complaint should be resolved with the police agencies, he said.
The motorcyclists' lawyer, Wendy C. Lascher of Ventura, argued that there is no data to support lawmakers' contention that wearing helmets reduces the rates of injury or fatality. Without such support, she said, the state cannot justify infringing on citizens' rights.
California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Alice Huffaker said the CHP does not yet have data showing whether enforcement of the helmet law resulted in a lower rate of injury or death.
Since Jan. 1, when California joined 23 other states and the District of Columbia in requiring all motorcycle drivers and passengers to wear helmets, the CHP has issued 640 citations statewide. Of those, 479 were to drivers and 161 to passengers. More than 40 citations were issued in Orange County, and more than 250 in Los Angeles County.