Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Would You Let a Cop Check Your Cellphone?

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Would You Let a Cop Check Your Cellphone?

Article excerpt

It should surprise no one that the New Jersey Legislature is seriously considering a bill to let police review driver cellphones at crash sites. Each news cycle seems to bring more bad news about the cars and phones we love, which -- when combined -- are believed to quadruple crash risk, according to several studies.

A recent AAA report even confirmed prior research showing that hands-free devices are just as distracting as the hand-held kind. So with distracted driving contributing to more than 3,000 deaths nationally, according to federal data, isn't it time to put teeth in a hand-held law that doesn't seem strong enough to detect many offenders?

Not this way -- at least not according to civil liberties advocates. They consider even temporary cellphone confiscation to be a privacy violation that might lead to police "fishing expeditions."

But in reviewing my mail, readers seem more concerned about the potential for police error than they are in breaches of privacy.

"The time of an accident is usually an approximation," said John Kilkeary.

The approximate time that the crash is called in might erroneously coincide with the recorded time of a cellphone call, noted the Park Ridge reader, especially if a driver crashes shortly after making a legal, hand-held call while parked.

"How would the use of Bluetooth and other hands-free cellphone usage be addressed?" asked George Shellowsky of Washington Township.

Yes, the bill, as drafted by state Sen. James Holzapfel, R- Ocean, is vague on this point. Bluetooth phone systems and some speakerphone-equipped devices can be legally accessed under New Jersey law, but an officer might conclude -- erroneously -- that these hands-free features weren't in use at the time of the crash. The Holzapfel bill suggests only that the officer must have "reasonable grounds" to believe that the driver was on the phone.

And what if the driver claims that a passenger was using the phone at the time of the crash?

"I'm not sure how an officer could verify who exactly was on the phone," said James Parenti, a retired police chief who serves as executive director of the New Jersey State Police Traffic Officers Association. …

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