Being sold under the guise of preventing distracted driving, a newly proposed Vermont law would allow officers to rifle through motorists’ cellphones without a warrant to see if they have recently been used.
“Essentially, it’s ‘show me your text log,'” said South Burlington Democratic Rep. Martin LaLonde, who is pushing the law as an amendment to the states 2014 ban on the handheld use of electronic devices while driving.
No state in the country allows warrantless cellphone searches and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such an activity is unconstitutional – but that hasn’t stopped LaLonde from trying to violate the privacy rights of people in Vermont.
Under his proposal, a driver who refuses to allow police to access to their phone would still get the same penalty as if they were texting, and the bill also expands the definition of “texting” to include voice-activated texting.
LaLonde said he looked at the legal precedent for breathalyzer tests in the state, which stipulates that anyone who drives a vehicle on a highway is implied to have given consent for such, and is applying it to texting.
Executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Allen Gilbert, said the dramatic expansion of implied consent comes with serious problems. He said “it’s hard to believe [the bill] won’t be found unconstitutional.”
Gilbert also maintained that the proposal “vague and over-broad,” especially when it comes to the justification for traffic stops – which could essentially occur if a person sneezes because it would appear to officers that they were glancing down at their electronic device.
Highway safety is becoming a “theme” in the House legislator this year, LaLonde said. He asserted that distracted driving is one of the biggest public safety issues facing his state. According to the Vermont Highway Safety Alliance, distracted driving causes 24 percent of crashes.
If caught using handheld electronic devices, Vermont residents already face first offense penalties of $156, two points on their driving record, and a 30 day recall of their license. For additional offenses, motorists face $329 fines, five points on their driving record, and an additional 30 day license revocation.
LaLonde maintained the idea of police demanding to see his phone doesn’t bother him and said, “personally, if I’m in a car and I’ve been text messaging, I should expect narrow privacy.”
The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin hearing testimony about the bill on Tuesday.