A new bill introduced in the New Jersey senate would allow police to collect and search cell phones at the scene of the car crash without a warrant.
The measure lets officers determine whether a driver was texting or talking on the phone during the time of the collision. Opponents of the bill worry the measure will violate the driver’s privacy and Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.
New Jersey has some of the toughest hands-free cell phone laws in the country. Police can pull over motorists for reading, typing or sending text messages. According to the N.J. Division of Highway Traffic Safety, there were 1,840 crashes in 2011 involving handheld cell phone use, resulting in six deaths and 807 injuries.
"Think about it,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. James Holzapfel, R-Ocean, to The Star Ledger. “The chances of the cop witnessing the accident are slim to none. He’s dispatched, and by the time he gets there — unless they’re unconscious and the phone is in their hands, or some passenger says they were on the phone — then he’s got to do what? Subpoena the service to see if the phone was actively used or not?"
A New Jersey represenative for the National Motorists Association, Steve Carrellas, said the bill is unlikely to solve any problems and questioned if it could even be utilized fairly.
"Here’s the bottom line: If you went all through what the bill is supposedly allowing, you still can’t determine if the person with the phone actually had a distraction that contributed to a crash," he said.
The bill would have police searching the cell phone of any individual in the crash without knowledge of whether that person caused the accident in the first place.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is likely to challenge the constitutionality of the measure.
"This bill is problematic because it infringes on the privacy rights of citizens," said Alexander Shalom, the ACLU’s state policy counsel. "Our state and federal constitutions generally require probable cause before authorizing a search, particularly when it comes to areas that contain highly personal information such as cell phones."
A bill tightening hands-free laws was approved by the New Jersey Legislature in May and sent to Gov. Chris Christie for approvable. That law, S69, creates hefty fines for electronic distracted driving. For a first-time offender texting or talking on the phone while driving, a fine of $200 to $400 would apply. For a second offense, $400 to $600. Fines up to $800 and possible 90-day suspension of a license are given on third and subsequent offenses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 387,000 people in the United States were injured in motor vehicle collisions involving distracted drivers in 2011. That same year, 3,331 people were killed in collisions involving a distracted driver, which is up from 3,267 in 2010.