We shouldn't need a warrant E-mail
Written by by Lance Burris   

In every traffic accident there is an underlying cause. Most traffic accidents occur because of the inattention of one or more drivers. Operator inattention can be caused by visual or auditory distractions such as not looking both ways when entering an intersection with a stop sign or having the radio volume so high outside noises can’t be heard. Lately the cell phone has proved the biggest distraction of them all. When the cell phone was first used in a car it led to an inability to maintain complete control of the vehicle;  an accident waiting to happen.

Cell phone related accidents have become so prevalent that it is a problem in every city, state and county jurisdiction. Recently in New Jersey there has been 1,840 cell phone related accidents.

Texas had its 2000 cell phone count of 716 increased to 1,032 in 2001.  In California, motorists using the cell phone while driving received 231,000 tickets since 2008. The California Highway Patrol reported the crashes and fatalities dropped 20 percent in the first six months after  the ban on hand-held cell phone while driving was put into law.

On a national level, the National Safety Council estimates 1.6 million crashes each year involve drivers texting while driving accounting for 28 percent of all traffic accidents. The NSC estimates that one of four accidents is caused by cell phone usage while driving.  

There are presently 39 states that ban text messaging by drivers, but few have passed laws restricting verbal hand-held cell phone usage. There has been some discussion that the federal government may withhold federal highway funds to states not adopting texting while driving restrictions.

All of these staggering statistics on cell phones causing injuries and death are starting to be noticed. New Jersey has introduced a Senate Bill (SB2783) which would allow police to look though cell phone dates without a warrant to attempt to determine whether the driver was texting or talking when the accident occurred.  

This bill is being opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey as a violation of the State Constitution and probable cause.  

The questions at hand are: Would this process of being able to search the phone data to ascertain if the driver was using the phone at the time of the accident be another investigative tool of importance to the investigation? and  Is this procedure an infringement of rights?  Also a factor is how would the Supreme Court look at it if called on to make a decision concerning the privacy rights of drivers and their personal effects?  

Even though the investigating officer will mark his or her thoughts on the contributing circumstances that caused the accident, in the long run, it is the insurance companies that will make the final determination as to who was at fault.  

Of course if the officer determines, through probable cause, the driver or drivers were using cell phones at the time of the accident they can be cited for that violation if the state has a statute making the action unlawful.  

There are several lines of thought in allowing the officer to secure a cell phone during their investigation to determine if it was indeed being used when the accident occurred.  One question is does the officer really need the cell phone and isn’t the officer, in fulfillment of duty, too busy to mess with looking for a phone because of the obligation to attend to an injured person, directing traffic, or talking with the drivers?

Talking on a cell phone or texting while operating a motor vehicle is a dangerous situation which can cause injury and death. All states should address the issue of banning all cell phone usage while driving. This may not completely stop the illegal usage, but it may help cut down on accidents.

Lt. Lance M. Burris is a retired Chief of Detectives and currently a 20 year veteran of the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy where he is a Master Instructor.  He is a published author and a U.S. Army Veteran.     

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