New Jersey Law Would Allow Police To Seize Cell Phones, Records After Car Crashes

A New Jersey lawmaker wants to enable police to search a driver’s cell phone immediately after a crash to see if the phone contributed to the accident.

State Sen. James Holzapfel (R-Ocean County) recently introduced legislation that would allow police officers to automatically confiscate a cell phone if there is a suspicion that the driver was texting or talking on the phone prior to the accident, the Star Ledger reported Monday. The legislation would also increase penalties for texting while driving. The New Jersey bill, which is opposed by civil liberties activists, is the second attempt in the nation to give police this power.

Holzapfel’s legislation states that whenever a driver has been involved in an accident resulting in death, injury or property damage, a police officer may confiscate the driver’s telephone and review the phone’s history to see if the phone was being used at the time of the accident. The information obtained would then be used in the police report. Current laws require police to obtain a search warrant or the driver’s permission to review the phone’s history.

According to Anne Teigen from the National Conference of State Legislature, New Jersey would be the first state to have such a law, should the bill pass and be signed by Gov. Chris Christie (R ). In 2009, Hawaii introduced a bill that had a cell phone confiscation provision for drivers, but the wording was vague in describing the conditions under which police could confiscate a phone. Hawaii's legislature and then Gov. Linda Lingle (R) did not pass the bill.

Holzapfel’s bill is being opposed by the New Jersey Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which says that the measure would infringe on the privacy of state residents.

"This bill is problematic because it infringes on the privacy rights of citizens," Alexander Shalom, the ACLU’s state policy counsel, said in a media statement. "Our State and Federal Constitutions generally require probable cause before authorizing a search, particularly when it comes to areas that contain highly personal information such as cell phones."

Holzapfel, a former Ocean County prosecutor, introduced the legislation on May 20 and it is pending before the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee. It has not obtained any co-sponsors in the Senate or Assembly to date. The New Jersey state legislature is scheduled to recess at the end of June for summer vacation and campaign season. Lawmakers will return to Trenton following the November election for a two-month lame duck session before their term expires in early January. Holzapfel is seeking a second term this year in a district centered in heavily Republican Ocean County.

Teigen said that some states have recently made it more challenging for police to obtain phone records at the scene of an accident; Indiana law prevents police from downloading cell phone records without the driver’s permission, in order to determine whether the driver was texting. South Carolina has legislation pending that would prevent police from seizing a cell phone at the scene of an investigation.

Some of New Jersey’s lawmakers have fought for years to make the state’s cell phone and driving laws among the strictest in the country. Despite the Garden State’s ban on texting and talking on a handheld device while driving, cell phone use while on the road is still a problem. The Newark Star-Ledger reported that in 2011, New Jersey had 1,840 handheld cell phone related crashes, leading to 807 injuries and six deaths. In a survey conducted last month by auto insurance group Plymouth Rock Assurance, 28 percent of New Jersey drivers polled admitted to reading or sending a text message while driving.

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