Proposed Law Would Allow New Jersey Police Officers to Search Drivers’ Cell Phones in Accident Investigations
Proposed legislation in the New Jersey State Senate would allow police to search a driver’s cell phone without a warrant when determining whether the driver was texting or talking at the time of a traffic accident.
Police officers usually ask motorists to present a driver’s license and vehicle registration after an accident. Under current law, an officer would need to ask for consent, apply for a warrant, or subpoena the driver’s cell phone service in order to determine if the driver’s phone was being actively used when the accident occurred.
However, because of the sharp rise in cell-phone-related accidents in New Jersey, legislators believe that it would be in everyone’s best interests for police officers to be able to more easily investigate crashes involving distracted driving. According to the State Division of Highway Traffic Safety, there were 1,804 such accidents in New Jersey in 2011, resulting in 807 injuries and six (6) deaths.
Opponents of the proposed legislation highlight concerns about citizens’ civil liberties and privacy rights. Allowing law enforcement officers to demand drivers’ phones, they say, may violate fourth amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Opponents are particularly troubled by the proposed law because cell phones often contain highly personal information. However, backers of the legislation respond that the law would only allow officers to thumb through drivers’ cell phones when officers have “reasonable grounds” to believe the law was broken. Using a cell phone while driving, they say, is already a violation of New Jersey law. Additionally, officers would be required to return the phone once they’ve reviewed the data.
If enacted, the new law could have serious implications for traffic violations in New Jersey, including reckless driving charges and DWI offenses.
Legal experts believe that, at some point, the United States Supreme Court is going to have to weigh in on this contentious issue.
For more information, see the TeaneckPatch.com article entitled “License, Registration and Cell Phone,’ NJ Cops May Soon Tell Drivers.”