In a decision with wide-ranging implications for people who might check their email on an iPhone while stopped at a traffic light, the California Court of Appeal ruled Monday that it was a crime to use a phone at any time behind the wheel of a stationary or moving vehicle.
Three days after Christmas in 2009, a motorcycle cop in Richmond pulled up to a red light and noticed Carl Nelson, driver of the stopped car next to him, appeared to be making a cell phone call. Nelson put down the phone as soon as he saw the officer. Nelson said he was just checking his email while waiting for the light to turn green. The Golden State banned the use of handheld cell phones while driving in July 2008.
“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,” the law states.
A subsequent update to the statute made it also illegal to read or write an email while driving. Nelson was fined $103, and he challenged the fine by arguing that he was not “driving” when he used the phone. He added that if the prosecutors were correct, drivers stuck in dead-stop traffic for hours behind a major accident would not be allowed to make a call while the road is cleared.
“One can [use] a cell phone while stopped at a red light (because it is safe to do so) without having used it while moving the vehicle to the red light and without using it when one resumes one’s voyage after the traffic light turns green,” Nelson argued. “Thus, the fact that one is using a cellular phone while stationary simply cannot give rise to a reasonable inference that one was using the phone before or after the period that one was stopped at a red light.”
The three-judge appellate panel was not persuaded. It argued that the word “drive” applies even when the vehicle is stopped at a traffic light, citing a number of cases interpreting search and seizure and drunk driving laws.
“Any mom or dad driving kids to school can expect to stop while parents in cars in front of them are unloading their kids,” Justice James A. Richman wrote in a concurring opinion. “A shopper driving to a store near Lake Merritt in Oakland may have to stop while a gaggle of geese crosses the street. A couple going for a Sunday drive in West Marin County may have to stop for a cattle crossing. And, of course, all of us are expected to stop for red lights, stop signs, crossing trains, and funeral processions. In short, all drivers may, and sometimes must, stop. But they do so while ‘driving.’ Just like defendant.”
The court majority went on to argue that allowing cell phone use in motionless vehicles would create a safety hazard.
“Were we to adopt defendant’s interpretation, we would open the door to millions of people across our state repeatedly picking up their phones and devices to place phone calls and check voicemail (or text-based messages) every day while driving whenever they are paused momentarily in traffic, their car in gear and held still only by their foot on the brake, however short the pause in the vehicle’s movement,” Justice James Lambden wrote. “This could include fleeting pauses in stop-and-go traffic, at traffic lights and stop signs, as pedestrians cross, as vehicles ahead navigate around a double-parked vehicle, and many other circumstances… Drivers paused in the midst of traffic moving all around them (behind them, in adjacent lanes, in the roadway in front of them) would likely create hazards to themselves and public safety by their distracted use of their hands on their phones and devices.”
A copy of the decision is available in a 220k PDF file at the source link below.
Source: California v. Nelson (Court of Appeal, State of California, 11/14/2011)