DALLAS – Get caught without your seatbelt in Dallas and you could pay almost $150 in fines and court costs, just ask anyone lining up at the counters to pay tickets on the first floor of the Dallas Municipal Court.
But a little known website, buckleoff.com, can potentially get some drivers out of seat belt violations for a third of the price.
"Well, there's certainly the potential for abuse," said Chief Prosecutor Fred Williams, Dallas Municipal Court. "We want to make sure people who actually are going to get the medical defense for not wearing the seatbelt actually have a medical reason for not wearing the seatbelt."
North Texans not wearing their seatbelts are more common than many may realize. Dallas Municipal Courts processed almost 13,000 tickets for that violation last year alone. What is not know is just how many people are using a medical excuse as a defense?
Answer 18 simple health questions at buckleoff.com, pay a $49.95 fee and Dr. Robert Hattner, a licensed doctor living near Seattle, will send a note in about a week dismissing drivers from wearing their seat belt.
He said he rejects the idea that people would lie about ailments just to get his note.
"If I saw them face to face they would say the same thing,” he said. "It would be the same if I were sitting in my office and someone came in and said, 'I have terrible pain in my shoulder. Whenever anyone touches my shoulder it causes me great agony.'"
Dr. Hattner said he has more than 300 patients in Texas, which is a third of all his patients nationwide. He also revealed it is rare he turns down a request for a note. Many of his patients suffer from obesity, arthritis or pain from recent surgery, Hattner said.
"It could be very legitimate exemptions,” said Daniel Hagood, a former Dallas County prosecutor currently in private defense practice. “On the other hand, it could be a system where by systematically the government is being beaten out of its rightful enforcement of the traffic laws.”
According to state law, Hattner's online note is a legal defense. There’s nothing in the Texas Transportation Code saying that either the doctor has to be licensed in Texas or has to make a face-to-face diagnosis for it to be admissible in court.
But whether it's proof enough for skeptical prosecutors is a dilemma Dallas courts have yet to decide.