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Saturday, February 24, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, February 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Hands-Free Rule Only For Talking, Judges Say

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - California drivers can't talk or text while driving, but glancing at cellphone maps is perfectly legal, a state appeals court ruled Thursday.

After Steven Spriggs, of Fresno, consulted a cellphone map application while stopped in heavy traffic to find a way around the jam, a California Highway Patrol officer spotted him holding his phone, pulled him over and issued a $165 ticket for violating the Golden State's hands-free requirement.

Spriggs fought the ticket unsuccessfully in both traffic court and Superior Court, claiming the law only applied to holding the phone while talking and listening based on its unambiguous wording. The Superior Court's appellate division affirmed the man's conviction last year, finding that the Legislature intended to outlaw "all hands-on use of a wireless telephone while driving."

But a unanimous panel of the 5th Appellate District found that lawmakers could have written the law more clearly, but their addition of the phrase "hands-free talking and listening" limits the ban solely to cellphone conversations while driving.

"The People's interpretation of the law - that it bans all handheld use of wireless telephones - would lead to absurd results and is opposed to the legislative intent," Judge Herbert Levy wrote. "If the phrase 'using a wireless telephone' includes all conceivable uses, then it would be a statutory violation for a driver to merely look at the telephone's display if it was not designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking. It would also be a violation to hold the telephone in one's hand, even if configured for hands-free listening and talking, and look at the time or even merely move it for use as a paperweight. The People do not point to anything in the legislative history to suggest the Legislature intended such a broad prohibition."

The court also noted that in 2006 - when lawmakers passed the hands-free law - smartphones were a glimmer on the technological horizon. Apple released its first iPhone in 2007.

"Although the Legislature was concerned about the distraction caused by operating a wireless telephone while holding it, the Legislature's focus was on prohibiting holding the telephone only while carrying on a conversation, not while using it for any other purpose," Levy wrote. "This is not surprising, given that when the statute was enacted in 2006, most wireless telephones were just that - a telephone - rather than an electronic device with multiple functions."

A spokesperson for Attorney General Kamala Harris said the office planned to review the ruling before deciding whether to appeal to the California Supreme Court.

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