Bill Would Allow Police to Check Cell Phones at Accident Scenes

Legislation would let police to check on the spot whether a driver was using a cell phone at the time of an accident.

By Erin Delmore

“Now the new thing is to go like this while you’re driving, and it’s dangerous. You’re better off with somebody drunk on the road then using their cell phone,” said Sen. Richard Codey.

Senator and former Gov. Codey is aiming to amp up the state’s distracted driving laws. His bill would authorize law enforcement to check — on the spot — whether a driver was using a cell phone at the time of an accident.

“The only information we want is the time it was being used. Content is nobody’s business, except the person who owns the phone,” Codey said.

Law enforcement would be able to check the phone at the scene of any incident that results in death, injury or property damage.

“Any reason that the cops feel, or law enforcement feel that access to your phone in terms of a timeline is very important,” Codey said.

Is it helpful to police?

“Any time we have a new tool or technology that comes out, that helps us in our investigations or can help us prove whether you’re right or wrong,” said Livingston Police Department Community Policing Coordinator Gary Mankowitz.

Police already have the authority to subpoena records to find out whether the cell phone was in use at the time of an accident. Codey’s bill speeds that process up, bypassing the judge and the warrant.

“We don’t let law enforcement officers on the street make these decisions. We think there’s value in having a check in place, and that comes from a judge,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom.

The ACLU says the bill is unconstitutional and that activity on a cell phone doesn’t prove the driver is at fault.

“Very often while I’m driving, my wife might be on my cell phone. Maybe she’s changing the music we’re listening to. Maybe she’s looking up directions. Maybe she’s sending a text message. But the fact that a text message was sent from a driver’s phone does not tell you that the driver was texting,” Shalom said.

Under Codey’s bill, a driver who refuses to hand over the phone would be penalized just like a motorist who refuses a breathalyzer.

“When you are pulled over for suspicious drunk driving, you’re asked to take a test. You have the right to refuse, but we have the right to say that right of refusal comes with a punishment,” Codey said.

That is, your license — revoked for seven months, minimum — and a fine in the hundreds.

“With breathalyzers, there’s a reason why police need to act on the roadside: because alcohol dissipates in the bloodstream. But phones leave a trail, and they leave a trail forever,” Shalom said.

Getting that info — unlocking the phone — is what stumped FBI investigators for months in the case of the San Bernardino shooter.

How would authorities actually get into the phone?

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. There’s new technology every day we’re discovering. Essentially, nothing’s secret,” Codey said.

At least one company says it makes a handheld device that can be modified to extract metadata and that they’re already working with law enforcement.