How will the new texting while driving law be enforced, and what are your rights?

Photo by Greg Wagoner

It’s been called a texting ban, but the new law impacting Iowa drivers and their phones goes beyond just texting. As of July 1, drivers are prohibited from viewing “images visible on the screen of a hand-held electronic communication device” including texts, instant messages, emails, games or websites. Viewing GPS information, as well as emergency traffic and weather alerts is still permitted.

Violators will be issued a citation for committing a simple misdemeanor. The base fine is $30, but receiving a citation will also result in having to pay a 35 percent criminal penalty surcharge, $10.50, and an estimated $60 in court costs.

The new law also made texting and the other prohibited activities primary offenses, meaning an officer can pull over any driver suspected of violating the ban. So how will officers determine if someone is texting instead of using GPS?

“It’s at the officer’s discretion,” Iowa City Police Department spokesman Sgt. Scott Gaarde said. If the driver disputes the citation, ICPD will rely on the officer’s eyewitness testimony regarding the violation, and possibly dash-cam footage, to support the citation in court. The ICPD will not confiscate a driver’s phone, but may subpoena phone records in cases of serious accidents.

The Cedar Rapids Police Department is taking a similar approach, according to an email from Maria Johnson, communications division manager for the city. “CRPD Officers are able to use their discretion to determine violations on a case by case basis. They rely on a variety of possible evidence to support enforcement. Law enforcement will not be able to confiscate a phone unless there was a crash and a serious injury or death occurred.”

Actually, police cannot confiscate a driver’s phone, according to Daniel Zeno of the ACLU of Iowa.

“Police may not confiscate a phone from a driver or occupants of the vehicle under this statute,” Zeno explained in an email. “The old statute (before 1 July) and the new statute (1 July and going forward) are clear: ‘Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize a peace officer to confiscate a portable hand-held electronic communication device from the driver or occupant of a motor vehicle.’”

Police also can’t require a driver to show their phone’s screen or unlock the phone, Zeno said. “If an officer ‘demands’ to see your phone, you have the right to decline. You don’t have to give it to her unless she has a warrant.”

“The new law doesn’t change the way that the Fourth Amendment limits police searches and seizures. If the phone screen is visible (unlocked and face-up such that the screen happens to be in plain sight), the officer could use the information she sees against you, but the officer cannot require a person to show the officer the phone screen or search it without a warrant.”

Neither ICPD or CRPD issued any citations during the first week of the new law.

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