CA Court Narrows Cell Phone Prohibition Law

On Thursday, February 27, 2014, the California Court of Appeal for the Fifth District issued an opinion narrowly interpreting California Vehicle Code section 23123(a), which restricts drivers’ use of cell phones. Vehicle Code section 23123(a) prohibits drivers from “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 case, People v. Spriggs, involved a man who was cited for using a popular mapping app on his iPhone while operating his car. Mr. Spriggs argued that he did not violate Vehicle Code section 23123(a) because he was not talking on his telephone at the time he was cited. The Court agreed, narrowly construing the code to prohibit talking on the telephone while driving and holding the telephone in one’s hand, but not other uses of cell phones. In reaching this conclusion, the Court examined the legislative history of Vehicle Code section 23123(a) as well as other provisions in the Vehicle Code restricting cell phone use. Because Vehicle Code section 23123(a) was originally drafted and introduced before the proliferation of smart phones, the legislative history and the law itself fail to explicitly discuss uses of cell phones beyond telephone conversations. Perhaps the Court’s recent decision will prompt additional legislation that explicitly addresses the many uses and distractions of wireless devices.

While this recent ruling reduces Vehicle Code section 23123(a)’s potential impact on distracted driving due to cell phone use, other Vehicle Code sections continue to restrict driver’s use of mobile devices. Specifically, Vehicle Code section 23123.5 prohibits all drivers from writing, sending, or reading text based communications, including text messages and emails, while driving. Vehicle Code section 23124 prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from using any wireless device, including cell phones, for any purpose whatsoever while driving, regardless of whether the teen driver operated the device in hands free mode. Finally, Vehicle Code section 22350, California’s basic speed law, prohibits drivers from traveling on highways at unreasonable or imprudent speeds taking into consideration the weather, visibility, and traffic, among other things. Vehicle Code section 23103 prohibits reckless driving, or driving “in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property." Both of these final two sections can be used in appropriate circumstances to cite and fine distracted drivers for their unsafe driving practices.

If you have any concerns related to or arising out of the use of cell phones or other mobile devices by motorists, please contact the skilled and experienced attorneys at Janssen Malloy LLP for assistance.