N.J. court: Hands-free cell phone law not broken when drivers push buttons | Science updates | NewJerseyNewsroom.com -- Your State. Your News.


Mar 01st
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N.J. court: Hands-free cell phone law not broken when drivers push buttons

textdriving070711_optBY JOE TYRRELL

New Jersey drivers can press buttons on their cell phones without violating the state law requiring "hands-free" calls, an appellate court has ruled.

The decision in a Bergen County case did not overturn the law requiring drivers to use cell phones with hands-free attachments except in emergencies.

But Judges Linda G. Baxter and Edith K. Payne also said penalties are not automatic when police see a driver holding a cell phone. "The plain language of the statute" permits some manual phone operations while driving, they said.

The case began on April 7, 2010, when Elliott Malone drove past Tenafly Police Lt. Daniel Siegel, who observed him "pushing buttons" on his cell phone.

In municipal court, Siegel testified he had "no idea" whether Malone's phone was equipped with an earpiece, according to court documents. Siegel also told the court he did "not necessarily" believe Malone was dialing, because he could have been "doing anything else," including sending a text.

Malone defended himself. He offered his cell phone records to prove he was not texting or otherwise sending messages, but the court rejected them because they had not been authenticated. He also argued the law allows drivers to activate, deactivate or launch a function on their cell phones.

Malone was fined $106 plus $33 in court costs, penalties upheld in Superior Court, where the judge said it "should not take the pressing of buttons to activate a cell phone."

But in their ruling, Payne and Baxter said that even the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office acknowledged the Legislature did not define what constitutes "activating, deactivating, or initiating a function of a cell phone." The judges pointed out the law specifically allows "the use of either hand" for these actions.

The prosecution cited a press release from then-Gov. James McGreevey, who described the law as "requiring drivers to keep both hands on the wheel." But the judges pointed out that is not what the statute says.

Instead, the ruling cites the legislative sponsor statement, "Hands-free designs or attachments should reduce the distractions associated with dialing." Clearly, motorists are still expected to dial, the judges said.

Even speed dialing requires a cell phone user to find a contact number and select it, so the lower courts were also wrong on this point, the appellate decision said. "Initiating a function" could involve a variety of buttons, the judges added.

Since the state did not prove Malone was doing anything wrong, the appellate judges reversed his conviction, but did not rule on his contention that the law as written is unconstitutionally vague.

The decision comes as state Sens. Richard Codey (D-Essex) and Paul Girgenti (D-Passaic) have pushed legislation to increase penalties on motorists who use hand-held cell phones. Although police have written 10,000 tickets a month for the offense since May 2008, the $100 penalty has not been a sufficient deterrent, according to Codey.

Comments (3)
3 Thursday, 19 September 2013 12:35
Done Similar
The system sucks. The judge says you cant plead guilty to something you didnt do. Then the prosecutor and cop tell me that my defense (I was initiating a call and it never even went thru) would not hold up because I did not have a Bluetooth device (I was planning on using speakerphone). After sitting there for 2 hours, I just gave in and said I am guilty of using my hand to initiate a call but never made a call....then the judge lectured me and fined me. Being unemployed, I have the time to appeal but cant afford increased costs they threaten me with should they continue to ram their interpretation of the law.
2 Thursday, 19 September 2013 12:20
Not Guilty But Fined Nonetheless
I too was ticketed for attempting to initiate a call via voice-activation and speakerphone...the call never even went thru I got pulled over so fast.

I went to argue my case in court and was told by the Prosecutor and Officer present that I had no case and they read me the law and said I was going to be found guilty and it'd cost me more time & money if I didnt just plead guilty.

So, against the Judge's order, I pleaded Guilty to something I am not guilty of. Will now prepare and appeal.
1 Thursday, 22 August 2013 13:37
Tom the patsy
I pleaded guilty today to using a hand-held device. My car has built in Bluetooth technology and is activated automatically when I enter vehicle. The Police officer stated he observed me with PDA device in my hand and wrote ticket for same. I may have had device in my hand but was not talking on it. I wish I read this article prior to court so after 5.5 hours, waiting with felons, I could have stood my ground and defended my initial not guilty plea.

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