“A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.” – California Vehicle Code Section 23123(a)
A California police officer issued a $165 ticket to Steven Spriggs for violating the above state law after the officer observed Spriggs checking a map on his phone while behind the wheel.
Spriggs challenged the ticket in court, arguing that checking a map app on his phone did not constitute “using a wireless telephone” within the intended meaning of the statute. The state claimed that the common-sense reading of the statute only protected a driver using a hands-free phone in conversation, and that all other cell phone uses while driving were banned. (See the opinion cited below for the state’s exact wording.)
Had the legislature intended to prohibit drivers from holding the telephone and using it for all purposes, it would not have limited the telephone’s required design and configuration to ‘hands-free listening and talking .’
Spriggs’s ticket was affirmed by the traffic court commissioner and the appellate division of the superior court. However, the Court of Appeals, in an opinion issued last Thursday, agreed with the Spriggs’s interpretation of the statute. “Had the legislature intended to prohibit drivers from holding the telephone and using it for all purposes, it would not have limited the telephone’s required design and configuration to ‘hands-free listening and talking,’ but would have used broader language, such as ‘hands-free operation’ or ‘hands-free use.’”
While this holding has no direct consequence on the state of North Carolina, it does shed some light on the North Carolina Supreme Court’s upcoming decision regarding the Chapel Hill ban on drivers using cell phones.
On March 26, 2012, the town of Chapel Hill passed an ordinance banning cell phone use while driving. Though an officer cannot stop the driver for this offense alone, violating the ban will cost the driver a $25 fine. The ban applies to hands-free devices as well as handheld devices, with the town citing studies that either form of phone use can cause distractions and “inattention blindness.” The town described its interest in the ban as protecting the significant number of Chapel Hill pedestrians from a younger-than-average driving population.
Both the plaintiff challenging the ordinance and the town of Chapel Hill filed briefs with the North Carolina Supreme Court in late January 2014. The plaintiff challenged Chapel Hill’s ban on the grounds that the state had already created a comprehensive regulatory scheme for cell phone use while driving, which preempted the town’s ability to legislate on the issue.
The door is still open in North Carolina for a defense on the meaning of “cell phone use,” as in the California case. Unfortunately, because this ordinance is more recently drafted and because it bans hands-free driving as well, it may be easier for a court to find that the town intended to include all uses of phones while driving within the language of the ban. At the very least though, the California case provides a reasonable argument by which North Carolina citizens could attempt limit the reach of a ban on cell phone use while driving.