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Thursday, February 27, 2014

It is Not Illegal to Check Your Phone or Use GPS While Driving in California

So holds the California Court of Appeal in People v. Spriggs, overturning an earlier opinion by the appellate division of the Superior Court that held the contrary.

The statute at issue is section 23123 of the Vehicle Code. The statute provides that:

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.
From the Court of Appeal's opinion:

While the statute may be interpreted, on its face, as the People assert, we agree with Spriggs that the statute is reasonably construed as only prohibiting engaging in a conversation on a wireless telephone while driving and holding the telephone in one’s hand. This is because the statute specifically states the telephone must be used in a manner that allows for “hands-free listening and talking.” (§ 23123(a).) It does not state that it must be used in a manner that allows for hands-free looking, hands-free operation or hands-free use, or for anything other than listening and talking. Had the Legislature intended to prohibit drivers from holding the telephone and using it for all purposes, it would not have limited the telephone’s required design and configuration to “hands-free listening and talking,” but would have used broader language, such as “hands-free operation” or “hands-free use.” To interpret section 23123(a) as applying to any use of a wireless telephone renders the “listening and talking” element nonsensical, as not all uses of a wireless telephone involve listening and talking, including looking at a map application.
The court goes on to hold that its interpretation is consistent with legislative history and statements by the executive. Moreover, the court states that a contrary reading of the statute would lead to absurd results:

If the phrase “using a wireless telephone” includes all conceivable uses, then it would be a statutory violation for a driver to merely look at the telephone’s display if the telephone was not designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking. It would also be a violation to hold the telephone in one’s hand, even if configured for hands-free listening and talking, and look at the time or even merely move it for use as a paperweight.
This is good news for somebody who is still getting used to the landscape of the Los Angeles area. Without the ability to use my phone as a GPS device, I would have ended up stuck in traffic in some unknown part of the city long ago.

H/T Shaun Martin of the California Appellate Report.

UPDATE: The BBC's coverage of the case is available here.

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