In People v. Spriggs, which was filed on February 27, 2014, the California Court of Appeal (Fifth Appellate District) held that the statute which prohibits cellular phone use while driving only applies to instances when the driver is talking or listening on the cell phone.
Vehicle Code Section 23123(a), which was enacted in 2006, provides: “A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.”
Steven Spriggs was stuck in traffic. He pulled out his cell phone to check a map application for a way around the congestion. A CHP officer saw him using his phone and issued him a traffic ticket for violating Section 23123(a).
Spriggs disputed the ticket. The superior court convicted Spriggs, reasoning that Section 23123(a) “outlawed all ‘hands-on’ use of a wireless telephone while driving.”
The Court of Appeal reversed Spriggs’ conviction, concluding that Section 23123(a) “does not prohibit all hand-held uses of a wireless telephone. Instead, it prohibits ‘listening and talking’ on a wireless telephone unless the telephone is used in a hands-free mode. Accordingly, Spriggs did not violate the statute when he held his cellular telephone in his hand and looked at a map application while driving and his conviction must be reversed.”
The court based its decision on the language of Section 23123(a) and the section’s legislative history. Its analysis of the words in Section 23123 convinced the court that the section “is reasonably construed as only prohibiting engaging in a conversation on a wireless telephone while driving and holding the telephone in one’s hand.” The court observed that a review of Section 23123’s legislative history supports its interpretation of the statute. The court noted, “The Legislature’s focus was on preventing drivers from holding a wireless telephone while speaking on it so the driver would have both hands free during the conversation.”
The court pointed out that its interpretation of Section 23123 is confirmed by legislative enactments in 2007 and 2008 which ban text-messaging for teens and other drivers. A legislative committee’s background document on the 2008 legislation called text-messaging a “’loophole’ in the body of laws dealing with cell phone use while driving.” The court explained, “There would be no ‘loophole’ for text messaging in Section 23123(a), or need to extend the teen ban on text messaging, if Section 23123(a) prohibited all hand-held use of wireless telephones.”
A copy of the Court of Appeal’s opinion is available at www.courts.ca.org