People v. Spriggs: what can you do with your smartphone while you’re driving?

Here’s a California appellate court decision that may interest anyone who has a smartphone: as of yesterday, it’s established that the law against talking on a hand-held phone while driving (as distinct from using some sort of hands-free rig) is just about talking on the phone; it doesn’t extend to other uses you might make of your phone.

The facts: Mr. Spriggs was stopped in traffic, and he checked Google Maps to see if he could find a way around the traffic jam, and a cop ticketed him for violating Vehicle Code section 23123(a), which says “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.” He fought it in court on the basis that “using” in this context means “talking to someone on,” and he lost, appealed it to the appellate division*, lost again, appealed to the Court of Appeal, and won. The Court of Appeal found that while “using” is a bit on the ambiguous side, it’s really clear that this statute is just about using phones for vocal communication; it does not generally prohibit holding the phone in your hand. Link to the opinion is below.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been saying this for years. The court didn’t go here, but my argument has always been that the texting-while-driving law, Vehicle Code section 23123.5, explicitly says that it’s ok to dial telephone numbers while driving: “a person shall not be deemed to be writing, reading, or sending a text-based communication if the person reads, selects, or enters a telephone number or name in an electronic wireless communications device for the purpose of making or receiving a telephone call.” That’s kind of verbose, but it’s perfectly clear that it means, at a minimum, “dialing is ok.” So it makes absolutely zero sense that the Legislature would then also make a law that says “oh, but holding the phone in your hand is not ok.” How am I supposed to dial it, then? Lay it on the passenger seat and reach over there? That’s vastly more dangerous than just doing it the obvious way.

Anyway, the result of this case, for better or for worse, is that California’s cell-phone-while-driving laws don’t prevent you from using the navigation feature of your smartphone while driving, even if that involves holding the phone in your hand. And I think it’s reasonable to interpret it as saying that these laws don’t prohibit you from using your smartphone while driving for any purpose other than the two explicitly prohibited ones: carrying on a non-hands-free conversation (VC 23123) or “using an electronic wireless communications device to manually communicate with any person using a text-based communication” such as texting or emailing (VC 23123.5). So, for example, it looks to me like you can play Candy Crush while driving without violating either of those laws (although I hasten to add that that’s a really terrible idea and undoubtedly illegal under some other law).

I’ll add that the use of the term “manually communicate” in the anti-texting law suggests to me that it’s ok to send text messages while driving if you use voice recognition to enter the text, rather than entering it on a keyboard.  “Manually” must mean something; there’s a general rule that legislatures don’t put words into statutes unless they have a good reason to.  And it seems pretty reasonable to me to suppose that “manually” means what it actually means: using the hands, as distinct from some other body part.  But that’s still an open question.  Up until yesterday, anyone who was voice-texting would have been cited under VC 23123, because up until yesterday everyone assumed that VC 23123 meant that you couldn’t have the phone in your hands at all.  So now that we know it doesn’t mean that any more, the question of whether voice-texting counts as “manually communicating” is up for grabs.

(* Footnote from above: in California, “appellate division” means a lower-level appellate court that hears initial appeals from misdemeanor and infraction cases. It’s part of the trial court system rather than the Court of Appeal. The phrase might be confusing to people from New York; there, “appellate division” means the intermediate appellate court, what we mean by “Court of Appeal.” New York is weird.)


Look at me, I’m blogging!

Ok, I’m going to give this a shot.  From time to time, I’ve posted on Facebook about developments in the law that I think might be interesting to non-lawyers if only they were explained in plain English instead of whatever that is that courts use, and various people have said things like “hey, you ought to be blogging.”  So ok, now I am.  We’ll see how this goes.  I would like to express my extreme admiration for my friend Greta Christina, who has worked her way up from blogger to successful, in-demand, published writer.  I have no expectations that anything like that will happen to me, and honestly I don’t even know if I aspire to it, but the fact that it happened to someone I personally actually know is just so amazing that it’s inspiring me to take at least the first baby steps.

I’ll start out with one on a very interesting California case called People v. Spriggs, which just came out yesterday.