Involved in a car crash? NJ might take your cellphone

Legal experts are taking issue with a New Jersey bill that would crack down on distracted driving by requiring motorists involved in accidents to hand over cellphones.

Some motorists and civil liberties advocates want New Jersey lawmakers to put the brakes on a bill that would allow police to search a driver's cellphone if there's reason to believe the driver was talking or texting at the time of an accident.

Under the bill, proposed by state Sen. James Holzapfel, law enforcement officers would be able to confiscate a driver's cellphone — without a warrant — and thumb through the call or text data, as long as they had "reasonable grounds" to believe the phone was in use at the time of the crash.

"Think about it: The chances of the cop witnessing the accident are slim to none," Holzapfel, a former municipal and county prosecutor, told The Star-Ledger. "He's dispatched, and by the time he gets there — unless they're unconscious and the phone is in their hands, or some passenger says they were on the phone — then he's got to do what? Subpoena the service to see if the phone was actively used or not?"

The bill has the support of law enforcement agencies, which say it could be useful in investigating crashes caused by distracted driving. New Jersey is among at least 10 states that prohibit all drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving. According to the U.S. Transportation Department, 41 states have banned texting while driving.

"It’s one of the questions you ask them: 'Were you on your cellphone at the time of the crash?'" South Brunswick police Sgt. Ken Drost told The Star-Ledger. "And, of course, they say no. Without the phone you really can't tell."

The bill would also increase the penalty for texting while driving.

NO DETERRENT?

Steve Carrellas, director of government and public affairs for the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association, told MSN News the bill isn't necessary and won't solve any distracted-driving problems.

"It just doesn't make any sense at all," he said. "What's the point? It's an after-the-crash bill. There's no deterrent effect in any crash. It doesn’t do anything useful except let cops and prosecutors be lazy in their investigation."

Motorist Ron Tillman of Piscataway also opposes the bill.

"You can’t just take my phone out unless I’m doing something wrong with it," he told CBS New York.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey said the bill infringes on citizens' privacy rights and would likely be challenged in court if passed.

"Our state and federal constitutions generally require probable cause before authorizing a search, particularly when it comes to areas that contain highly personal information such as cellphones," Alexander Shalom, the ACLU’s state policy counsel, told The Star-Ledger.

James A. Williams, a former municipal police chief and a consultant on police practices and procedures, agreed that the bill is constitutionally problematic.

"I would opine that without some probable cause to believe the phone was being used, before and at the time of the accident, there is an infringement on the person's Fourth Amendment right," he told MSN News.

'MY BIGGEST SOURCE OF IRRITATION'

There were 1,840 handheld cellphone-related crashes in New Jersey in 2011, resulting in 807 injuries and six deaths, according to state Division of Highway Traffic Safety data cited by The Star-Ledger.

Across the U.S., cellphone use was reported in an estimated 21,000 distraction-related crashes in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available.

It's a huge issue for outgoing federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who launched a national anti-distracted-driving campaign in 2009. LaHood has repeatedly harped on the dangers of using cellphones while driving, which he called "my biggest source of irritation."

Carrellas, of the motorists association, said the attention is being misplaced. He said the government's own numbers show that just a fraction of fatal or injury crashes are attributed to cellphone distraction.

"It's real important to address overall distraction and not pick on one that seems to get a popular uprising," he said.

More from MSN

Nearly half of high schoolers text while driving: Survey

Study finds link in teens texting behind wheel, drunken driving

New teen driver killed in crash; texting to blame?

Why do we still text and drive?

Survey: Put the hammer to texters

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