Court: Cell phone law covers stops

court of law image of scales of justiceCalifornia’s law against use of handheld cell phones while driving applies when vehicles are stopped at traffic lights, an appeals court has ruled.

While the Legislature didn’t specifically address use of handheld electronics at stop lights, the First District Court of Appeal ruled Nov. 14 that the statute writers’ intent was to include vehicles on public roadways that are paused momentarily to obey traffic laws.

The judges cited “significant and numerous public safety hazards that likely would result” if they agreed with the defendant’s claim that the distracted driving laws did not apply to “fleeting” traffic stops.

Carl Nelson originally appealed his traffic court conviction in Contra Costa County Superior Court. Nelson, a lawyer, is expected to carry the case to the California Supreme Court.

Nelson, who was fined $103 for the 2009 incident, has said he hopes his appeals will provide clarity on the California distracted driving laws.

The three-judge panel, however, said matters were quite clear. “Defendant listened to his hand-held wireless telephone during a fleeting pause at a traffic light ‘while driving’ in Richmond and, therefore, violated section 23123, subdivision (a) (of the state traffic statutes).”

The California distracted driving law of 2007 reads: “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.”

Nelson’s case was based, in part, on a DUI case in which the state Supreme Court made a distinction between the terms “drive” and “operate.” The First District Court of Appeal judges said that ruling did not address “fleeting stops made while driving” and that the Legislature was not addressing any issues raised in the DUI case (Mercer v. Department of Motor Vehicles).

The appeals court judges said a ruling in Nelson’s favor “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.”

The ruling applies to the separate statute against text messaging and use of handheld electronic devices while driving, the judges wrote.

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