Are Police Electronic Device Laws Justified?

California, like many other states, has laws on the books to control the use of electronic devices while riding. As in most (all?) jurisdictions with such laws, there is an explicit exception for operators of emergency vehicles – which on the surface makes sense to most. While the intent of this exemption makes sense to me, a recent case has caused me to seriously reconsider the implications of an unrestricted exemption.

It started when former Napster COO Milton Everett Olin Jr. was struck and killed by a LA County Sheriff’s patrol car. It later came to light that the officer driving the patrol car was responding to an email using the laptop in his car at the time he struck Olin. The driver was later identified as Deputy Andrew Wood. Lawsuits were filed, questions were raised and details came out. Based on the wording of the law, LA county district attorneys declined to file charges against the officer.

23123.5.  (a) A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using an electronic wireless communications device to write, send, or read a text–based communication, unless the electronic wireless communications device is specifically designed and configured to allow voiceoperated and hands-free operation to dictate, send, or listen to a text-based communication, and it is used in that manner while driving.

(b) As used in this section “write, send, or read a text-based communication” means using an electronic wireless communications device to manually communicate with any person using a text-based communication, including, but not limited to, communications referred to as a text message, instant message, or electronic mail.

(c) For purposes of this section, a person shall not be deemed to be writing, reading, or sending a text–based communication if the person reads, selects, or enters a telephone number or name in an electronic wireless communications device for the purpose of making or receiving a telephone call or if a person otherwise activates or deactivates a feature or function on an electronic wireless communications device.

(d) A violation of this section is an infraction punishable by a base fine of twenty dollars ($20) for a first offense and fifty dollars ($50) for each subsequent offense.

(e) This section does not apply to an emergency services professional using an electronic wireless communications device while operating an authorized emergency vehicle, as defined in Section 165, in the course and scope of his or her duties.

The district attorney’s report concluded that:

Wood entered the bicycle lane as a result of inattention caused by typing into his MDC. He was responding to a deputy who was inquiring whether the fire investigation had been completed. Since Wood was acting within the course and scope of his duties when he began to type his response, under vehicle Code section 23123.5, he acted lawfully. Although the MDC inquire and response were not of an emergent nature, the law does not limit officers from using an electronic wireless communications device in the performance of their duties to situations involving emergencies.

MDC is defined in the report as “…a laptop computer that is mounted on a stand in the center console area of the vehicle.” So basically, yes the officer violated the electronic device laws has detailed in CVC 23125.5, but clause ‘e’ of that statute exonerates him.

The frustration for me comes from other parts of the report that detail the officer sending text messages to his wife “…while at a stop light.” That usage is NOT exempted by the vehicle code as it was not done in the course of his duties as an officer. However, the message he was responding to “in the course of his duties” was, in retrospect, not a pressing one. The law as written and enforced seem to have lead to a feeling of general unconcern from the risks the laws were intended to address. By allowing officers this exemption they have no reason to fear accountability for any actions taken involving electronic devices while driving. In theory an officer could type out an entire email about an upcoming precinct party (in the line of work) that has nothing to do with serving the public, cause a wreck and have no accountability. That just doesn’t seem right.

I’ve come to believe it is high time we change the electronic device laws so this exemption is applicable only to emergency situations. Our emergency responders are equipped with a wide array of communications devices – including radios and cell phones that can be equipped hands-free. These are paid for by taxpayers to assist these people in serving the public. This would seem to make it exceedingly easy to get ahold of an officer without using communication means that require them to remove their eyes from the road or (worse yet) put their hands on a keyboard while driving.