The first of July in Indiana means that laws passed in the most recent legislative session go into effect. This year, as in most years, most changes in the criminal law are technical changes and fixes to existing laws that won’t have any real effect on most people’s lives. But there is a new law this year that will affect nearly everyone. Or at least everyone who drives a car and has a cell phone.
Starting on July 1, it will be a Class C Infraction to hold or use a phone device while operating a motor vehicle unless you are calling 911. That means that if you are driving down the street, going the speed limit and following every other traffic law, you could still be pulled over if you have your cell phone in your hand. Even if you are not using it or even looking at it. While that may be an extreme example, it appears that the legislature wanted to make this law as broad as possible.
The law previously prohibited people from typing, transmitting, or reading text or electronic messages on their phone while operating a vehicle, but all of that language was removed and the law now prohibits holding or using a phone while operating a vehicle completely. Operate is defined as “navigating or otherwise being in physical control of a vehicle.” (Indiana Code 9-13-2-117.5). Notably, the legislature did not require that the car be in motion. So, if you are like me and you like to check for new emails (or Twitter or Facebook) when you are stopped at a red light, that could get you pulled over.
There is one important exception: you are allowed to use a phone with hands-free or voice operated technology. We are getting to where hands free, Bluetooth technology is standard in new cars, but if you drive an older car and need to be able to drive and talk, you better get a Bluetooth ear piece and know how to operate your phone by voice if you want to fully comply with the law.
The Class C Infraction is punishable by up to a $500 fine and the legislature did include a provision in the law that this violation will not add points to your license. But, as a Criminal Defense law firm, our concern is that it gives the Police justification to stop and detain citizens and then find a reason to conduct further investigation. If you’ve been drinking, or an officer claims he or she detects the smell of marijuana in your car, the act of just holding your phone while driving could lead to a whole lot more trouble. Any new traffic law gives the Police more license to detain citizens and thus should be drafted with care.
Distracted driving is a serious concern, and something that should be addressed, but this law goes too far. The act of holding a phone does not cause any distraction, and certainly looking at your phone while your car is not in motion can be done safely. What’s more, some people have to be on the road all day for work and have to talk on the phone while they drive. When possible, this should be done hands free and with Bluetooth, but not all people have those capabilities. Those that do not should not be punished for using their phone while driving if they can do it in a safe manner. This law could have struck a better balance but instead, it’s drafted as broadly as possible.
At the Criminal Defense Team of Baldwin, Perry, and Kamish, P.C. we like to be on the cutting edge of new legislation and would love to have the opportunity to challenge this new law. If you’ve been accused of violating this statue, please call us for a free consultation.