Overview: A California Court of Appeal recently held that using a cell phone solely for its map function did not violate Vehicle Code section 23123. The court found that both the plain language of the statute and the legislative history showed that the law was meant to prohibit only talking on a cellphone unless using it hands-free. This ruling overturned the decision of a lower court that upheld the defendant’s conviction.
Training Points: Although this ruling is only binding within the 5th District Court of Appeals (the counties of Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Stanislaus, Tulare and Tuolumne), the ruling is instructive on how other courts may interpret Vehicle Code section 23123(a). The court’s analysis pointed to a narrow prohibition of using cellphones for talking except in hands-free mode, but did not include using the cellphone for other purposes. Given this ruling, officers who observe motorists utilizing a device while driving will need to determine whether the motorist is legally using the navigation function or using the device for other purposes such as texting or talking. Clearly, the overarching concern is the driver’s level of distraction when using the device, hence the prosecution of VC 23123 (a) cases will be challenging. Providing details about the driver’s actions while using the device (looking away from the road for a prolonged period, crossing into other lanes abruptly, etc.) will be necessary to prove the elements of the violation and may also establish other Vehicle Code violations.
Summary Analysis: In People v. Spriggs, a California Highway Patrol officer cited Steven R. Spriggs for driving a motor vehicle while using a cell phone. Spriggs had been holding his phone to look at a map and he was not talking on the phone at the time. The Fresno County Superior Court upheld the citation. Spriggs appealed the decision to the Appellate Division, arguing that the statute prohibited hands-on use of a wireless telephone for conversation only, not when using a map application. The Appellate Division upheld his conviction and he appealed again to the Fifth District Court of appeal. The court agreed with Spriggs’ contentions, finding both the plain language of the statute and the legislative history in support of his interpretation. To rule differently, the court found, would make the language of the statute internally inconsistent and at odds with the legislative history, which showed a clear concern for people having two hands on the wheel while talking. The legislative history did not include a concern for people using their phones for other purposes, including using a map application.