BB&K Police Chief Bulletin: Distracted Driving - Looking at Map on Cell Phone While Driving Violates “Hands-Free” Law

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Overview: The Appellate Division of the Fresno County Superior Court recently held that using a cell phone solely for its map function violated the Vehicle Code. Section 23123(a) prohibits driving while “using” a cell phone except for hands-free listening and talking. A Fresno County driver was cited for violating this section by looking at a map on his phone while driving. He challenged the citation, claiming that this use of a cell phone did not violate the law. The appellate division looked at the history and “plain meaning” of the statute and found that the purpose of the statute was reducing traffic collisions by preventing the physical distraction of holding a phone instead of keeping both hands on the wheel. Distracted driving included the use of a hand-held device to talk, text, email or find directions. The plain language of the statute specifically prohibited any “use” of a wireless telephone while driving unless the device was used in a hands-free manner. Based on these facts, the court concluded that the driver’s conduct violated the Vehicle Code.

Training Points: Although this ruling only applies in Fresno County, it does provide some guidance as to the legislative intent of Vehicle Code § 23123 (a) and how courts may interpret “use” in finding a violation. The court interpreted the term “use” broadly, to include any use of the phone for any purpose, and not just talking. Public concern over distracted driving remains high despite awareness and enforcement programs across the different levels of government.    Law enforcement agencies may want to consider whether application of the court’s reasoning on “use” could support distracted driving enforcement and deterrence in their communities.

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, arguing that the statute prohibited hands-on use of a wireless telephone for conversation only, not when using a map application. He contended that another statute was later enacted to cover uses other than talking and listening on any electronic device. The appellate division disagreed, finding that the Legislature could have limited application of the statute to conversing, listening or talking, but did not. Instead, the statute focused on the physical distraction caused by any hands-on “use” of a phone while driving. The later bill was merely designed to cover other electronic devices. Spriggs did not dispute that he was holding a wireless telephone in his hand while driving, and that the phone was in use at the time. As such, he was properly cited for the violation.

Follow-Up Contact: For questions regarding this case or its implications for your city and police department, please contact Paul Cappitelli, BB&K’s law enforcement and public integrity specialist, G. Ross Trindle, III, police attorney, or your BB&K attorney.

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