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Law would allow cops to search phones after crashes

Mike Derer / AP file

A driver talks on a cellphone while driving in Newark, N.J., on Feb 28, 2008, a day before a state law banning the use of hand-held devices went into effect.

New Jersey lawmakers are considering a bill that would require drivers to hand over their cell phones along with their licenses and registrations when talking to police after a car accident. 

The bill, proposed by state Sen. James Holzapfel, would give police the right to thumb through the phone’s history of calls and text messages without a warrant, under the pretense of assessing whether or not the phone was in use during the accident.

Afterwards, officers would be required to return cellphones to their users.

If passed, the bill would be the first of its kind. A similar bill failed in Hawaii in 2009.

The legislation, which is aimed to cut down on reckless accidents due to distractions while driving, states: “whenever an operator of a motor vehicle has been involved in an accident resulting in death, bodily injury or property damage, a police officer may confiscate the operator’s hand-held wireless telephone if the officer has reasonable grounds to believe that the operator was operating a hand-held wireless telephone while driving.”

According to the Department of Law and Public Safety’s most recent annual report, there were approximately 10,000 motor vehicle crashes attributed to cell-phone use in New Jersey from 2008-2010. The state prohibits talking on a cell phone unless the driver is using a hands-free device. 

Cathleen Lewis, the Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations for AAA, said targeting cell phones may not go far enough. 

“Obviously, distracted driving is a huge concern, and it continues to grow every day, but it is not limited to use of cell phones, it is other cognitive distractions as well,” Lewis said. “I think if we are going to better talk about how to tackle distracted driving, we have to talk about it in its totality — distractions could be phones, GPS or entertainment devices in cars.”

AAA New Jersey released a study Wednesday revealing that voice-activated car technologies, including the use of hands-free cellphone devices, dangerously undermine the attention of the driver, making it harder for them to keep their eyes on the road. 

Such distractions led to 3,331 deaths and an additional 387,000 injuries nationwide in 2011, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

To fight distractions, 41 states have banned texting while driving; 11 states have banned hand-held cellphone use all together.  

Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU) knows that making sure our roads are safe and drivers are not distracted while on the road is an important goal, but does not support the senator’s bill. 

“There are many things government can and should do to educate about the dangers of texting while driving or talking on cellphone.But, what government can’t do is say ‘just because we think you may have potentially used your cellphone during an unfortunate crash, that is not enough to seize the phone, take it away from you, and go through your phone records’” he said.

Ofer and the ACLU are concerned that if legislators pass one law allowing the government to infringe on the right to privacy, that it will be a slippery slope. 

“I think it’s important to keep in mind the greater principle at stake, this is about our privacy and rights. As Americans one of our most cherished rights is the right to be left alone, privacy, and this bill would greatly damage that constitutional right,” Ofer said. 

The ACLU is confident that the bill will not pass. Holzapfel was not available for comment.