New Jersey’s Tough Laws
New Jersey has some of the toughest laws in the nation regarding improper cell phone use while driving. New Jersey was one of the first states to ban hand-held cell phone use and text messaging while driving. It also was a leader in prohibiting all cell phone use by drivers with permits. In 2007, New Jersey’s existing improper cell phone use while driving law became a primary offense, meaning police can stop drivers for that reason alone. Then, rules prohibiting texting while driving went into effect in 2008.
Under New Jersey law, other than in an emergency, a motorist may only engage in a conversation on a cell phone if the telephone is equipped with a hands-free device. A motorist may not hold the telephone in one hand while talking to, or listening to, the person on the other end of the phone. The law also prohibits motorists from holding the telephone to send a text message or electronic mail. The only circumstance in which a motorist is permitted to hold a wireless cell phone in one hand, with the other hand on the steering wheel, is when the motorist is activating, deactivating or initiating a function of the telephone while using a hands-free device, which includes answering the phone, ending the phone call or dialing a phone number. The law also contains an emergency exception that allows a motorist to hold a cell phone in one hand to make a call whenever the motorist believes their life or safety, or that of another, is in danger. Also, the law allows such usage if the motorist us using the phone to report a fire, traffic accident, a serious road hazard or medical or hazardous materials emergency or to report another driver operating unsafely or who appears to be intoxicated.
Effective 2014, the fines for improper talking or texting on a cell phone while driving increased to some of the highest in the nation. First time offenders will face a fine up to $400. The fine associated with a second offense will increase up to $600, and drivers who are caught a third time will face a fine up to $800, a possible 90-day suspension of their driver’s license and will be assessed (3) three motor vehicle penalty points. These stiff fines follow the recent adoption of a law allowing criminal prosecution of cell phone users if they drive recklessly and cause serious harm or death. Penalties for those reckless drivers include prison time and fines up to $150,000.
What to Do
Given the wording of the law on improper cell-phone use while driving, there are potential defenses available to charges issued pursuant to that law. Indeed, a recent court case held that the law does not necessarily prohibit the pressing of cell phone buttons, in and of itself. Indeed, the wording of law is open for multiple interpretations when applied to different circumstances. For example, under certain circumstances, using your cell phone to listen to music in your car or using the phone’s GPS function may not constitute prohibited use under the statute. Additionally, using a cell phone’s speaker function to talk or listen may constitute permissible hands-free usage under the right circumstances. In any event, be sure to preserve your cell phone’s electronic information and billing records after receiving a summons for improper cell phone use while driving, as this evidence may be helpful in your defense. If the State has charged you with improper cell phone while driving, contact Shanahan & Voigt, LLC, to discuss the potential defenses that may exist in your case.