Developments of Interest

California Court: Drivers Can Read Cell Phone Maps

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04/02/2014

A California court is attempting to draw a clearer line between legal and illegal cell phone use while driving.  In a recent opinion by the Fifth District Court of Appeal, the court held that looking at a map on your smartphone is ok because the law only prohibits listening or talking on the device.

In People v. Spriggs, the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the case of a Fresno man who was ticketed in January 2012 for looking at a map on his iPhone 4 while stuck in traffic. The driver, Steven Spriggs, challenged the $165 fine.  He contended he did not violate the statute because he was not talking on the phone.  The Court of Appeal agreed, finding: “Based on the statute’s language, its legislative history, and subsequent legislative enactments, we conclude that the statute means what it says – it prohibits a driver only from holding a wireless telephone while conversing on it.”  The court found that the law at issue, Vehicle Code section 23123, “prohibits listening and talking on the wireless telephone” unless it is a hands-free phone.  Spriggs did not violate the statute, the court held, because he was simply holding his cell phone in his hand to look at a map.

Texting while driving remains illegal under another California law passed after the one at issue in Spriggs' case.  However, the Spriggs decision begs the question: When does using a smart phone while driving cross into illegal territory?  While the court limited its holding to looking at a map, its reasoning would seem to apply equally to drivers fiddling with their phones to change their Pandora station, check traffic conditions or monitor Facebook updates.  Such activities, while not specifically prohibited by statute, would seem to raise the same concerns about distracted driving that spawned the texting and cell phone laws.

“While the court’s reasoning is sound, motorists are still left to guess at what exactly they can lawfully do with their cell phone,” said Michael J. Markowitz, a Gagen McCoy shareholder and criminal law specialist who represents motorists charged with the texting and cell phone driving offenses.  “Is it illegal to read your friend’s twitter feed in stop-and-go-traffic? Common sense might say no, but under the current state of the law, this kind of distracted driving appears to be legal.”

If you have been cited or charged with a driving offense involving cell phone use or texting, contact Michael J. Markowitz to discuss your potential defenses.

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