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Dallas police again enforcing law requiring bicycle helmets on all riders

09:19 AM CDT on Saturday, October 10, 2009

By DIANE JENNINGS / The Dallas Morning News

After suspending enforcement for several months, the Dallas Police Department is again ticketing people for violations of the city's bicycle helmet law.

City Attorney Tom Perkins said enforcement was halted in June after a state district judge issued a ruling on the local ordinance that rendered it unconstitutional.

Sergio Portillo, 33, was stopped July 11, 2008, as he rode his bicycle while not wearing a helmet near downtown. He was then searched and charged with drug possession after police said they found that he was carrying crack cocaine.

David Pire, attorney for Portillo, argued in court that the city's ordinance conflicts with state law and is unconstitutional because it "infringed upon his right to travel freely."

"It just seemed the hokiest law," he said Friday. In court, he argued that it makes no sense compared with the state law regulating motorcycle riders. Under that law, helmets are required only if the rider is under 21, lacks health insurance and has not had a safety course.

The judge in Portillo's criminal case ruled that the evidence in Portillo's drug case should not be admitted because it was obtained when the helmet law was enforced, and that law is unconstitutional.

When the judge agreed the evidence should be suppressed, police officers were directed to stop enforcing the law – until Thursday.

"We've looked at it, we're appealing that decision and pending the appeal, we're going to continue to enforce the ordinance," Perkins said.

The city ordinance, which took effect in 1996, is unusually broad, applying to adult cyclists as well as children. Most bicycle helmet laws in other cities are directed at youngsters.

Assistant Dallas County District Attorney Martin Peterson declined to comment on the appeal, but his court brief says, "an ordinance will not be found unconstitutional unless it is shown to be arbitrary, unreasonable, and a clear abuse of power."

Concerns of abuse

Abuse of power is one of Pire's concerns. Complaints from clients about the helmet law "popped up periodically and it's always a minority" who has been stopped by police, he said. "I started looking at it and I thought this law can't be valid."

His client, Portillo, was stopped in the early morning darkness near downtown. "I think racial profiling comes into play," Pire said. "Maybe not intentionally but subconsciously."

Perkins said he had not heard that allegation and had "no reason to believe that the police department is doing that."

Sgt. Warren Mitchell, public information officer for the Dallas Police Department, said officers do not use the law inappropriately.

"This is more of a safety issue than anything," he said. "Bicycle accidents occur all the time and hospitals are filled with patients from those injuries who were not wearing helmets."

The cycling community is divided over the issue of requiring helmets, said Jason Roberts, co-founder of a biking advocacy group, Bike Friendly Oak Cliff. He's fairly ambivalent on the issue, he said, but, "I'm more of an advocate for wearing helmets due to the fact that we're being forced to ride in lanes with cars.

"Once we can get dedicated pathways built, I will feel more comfortable," Roberts said.

But longtime cyclist Paul Woodfield, who also is fighting the Dallas statute, is disappointed that the city will be enforcing the law again.

"They're amazingly inconsistent," he said. "One day it's legal, the next day it's illegal. Then the next day it's legal again, then it's illegal. How is anyone supposed to know? How are you supposed to know to comply?"

Pending suit

Woodfield filed suit against the city over the law in 2007 after he was ticketed while biking around White Rock Lake one afternoon.

"I told the officer at the time, state law doesn't require this," he said. "He said the city can do whatever they want – go fight it in court."

Woodfield did, and his suit is pending in a county court-at-law. The city has fought the suit, claiming the court lacks jurisdiction. The court disagreed and that ruling is being appealed.

Woodfield filed suit because, "It's wrong, it discourages people from biking," he said, recalling carefree summers "bicycling around with my friends" sans helmet.

As in Portillo's criminal case, Woodfield claims the statute violates state law and the U.S. Constitution.

"The law is unconstitutional because it conflicts with the law passed by the Legislature, and I have the vested property right not to spend my cash on the helmet and a vested property right to use my bike in accord with state law."

Though he is white, Woodfield also worries the law may be abused. In his suit he asked the city to admit the police department "used riding without a helmet as a pretext to stop people for searches."

Despite the considerable time and effort expended on these two cases, Perkins said the statute is not more trouble than it's worth. "Absolutely not," he said. "There's an important public safety benefit associated with the law."

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