Would Checking Cellphones After Collisions Truly Help Police?

Some in law enforcement see legislation that allows police to look through cellphones without warrants as helpful in maximizing investigations, while others argue there are more pressing issues to attend to post-collision.

by / July 15, 2013

In New Jersey, a bill introduced to the state Senate on May 20 is still pending -- and perhaps for good reason.

Senate Bill (SB) 2783, which would allow police to look through cellphones without warrants, aims to determine whether drivers were texting or talking when a traffic accident occurred should officers have reasonable grounds to believe that may be the case.

But as is expected, the bill has drawn suspicion from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which told CNN that the 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 cellphones."

Despite privacy concerns, however, there is the matter of driver safety, and cellphone usage has become a major problem for motorists. According to  the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety,  1,840 cellphone-related crashes were reported in 2011.

And the issue isn't limited to the state. 

"I think it's a national problem," said  Robert Van Diest, traffic lieutenant in charge of Traffic and Special Events with the Reno, Nev., Police Department. "We already have laws in place in Nevada that prohibit texting and talking on the phone while driving. Yet we have no problem finding violators when we do our operations to target that specific offense."

Though Van Diest  agrees that something must done about motorists using their phones while driving, he  questions whether the proposed legislation would solve this problem.

"Our cellphone regulations in Nevada deter some people," he said. "Others are so tied to technology that they're just going to do what they're going to do. Since the Nevada law to prohibit texting was passed, I've seen people pulled over on the side of the road talking on their phones. I suspect that before, they would have done that while they were driving."

But in California, Sgt. Darren Greene with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) has a differing view; he says he thinks the proposed legislation would, in fact, help police with their work.

"This law would help us do our job by maximizing our abilities to conduct more thorough investigations," Greene said. "In the event of a collision, the law could help us paint a picture of what was occurring before the collision."

But Van Diest also questions the usefulness of checking cellphones after major collisions. "I don't think I'd want to be going through somebody's phone if they were involved in an accident," he said. "Half the time, we're trying to find out who's even at fault."

If it's a "good" accident, he said, cars may not even be pointing in the direction they were initially headed. "We have more pressing issues, such as preservation of life, preservation of the crime scene, trying to figure out who is at fault, making sure family members are notified and getting them en route if someone is hurt," Van Diest added. "Checking someone's cellphone would be way, way down on our list of priorities. If it came to it, we could probably apply for a warrant right now, and go from there."

As for whether such a law even passing, Van Diest sees the problems with the constitutionality of the proposed legislation, and isn't sure such a thing would survive a Supreme Court challenge -- a process the bill would likely go through.

"Cellphones are mini computers; you can store so much information in them," he said, adding that law enforcement can't simply enter someone's home and check their computer. "I just don't know whether the Supreme Court is going to allow officers to start looking through cellphones. If they do, it's going to be on a very limited basis. You might be able to look at the most recent call or text, but not all of them. What if you're checking their cellphone after a crash and you find some other criminal activity?"

Should SB 2783 pass, however, Van Diest says it would represent a major shift in the way police officers deal with cellphones.

"Our common practice with looking at cellphones is to get a warrant or consent, or to go off exigency or any other factors that negate getting a warrant to search something," he said. "We don't just go willy-nilly grabbing people's cellphones and looking through them."

Scott Amundson Contributing Writer

Scott Amundson has written for a number of fine publications, including Attorney-at-Law Magazine and The Suit Magazine. He also contributes to the Oklahoman and the Journal Record.