Critics say the state's Traffic Tribunal overstepped its bounds, citing that the law barring texting while driving is specific to that — texting.
(TNS) — PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A recent Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal ruling that allows drivers to be ticketed for fiddling with their cellphone while using GPS is drawing criticism and praise from different quarters of the Ocean State.
One critic, state Rep. Charlene Lima, said she plans to submit legislation to clarify the matter, following the tribunal's ruling.
"I think that the Traffic Tribunal overstepped its bounds," Lima said. The Cranston Democrat insisted that the law barring texting while driving was aimed at just that, texting.
"To allow the Traffic Tribunal to apply the texting statute to other forms of electronic medium would be giving them legislative powers that are in our state Constitution," she said. Under the tribunal's interpretation of the texting law, tuning your radio could be a violation, but she acknowledged that the language of the law itself might be overly broad.
"As far as if the use of GPS is dangerous, then it would be up to the General Assembly to draft legislation," Lima continued. "Then we would have public hearings and we would hear the pros and cons. It's not the role of the Traffic Tribunal to make law. It's up to the General Assembly."
The tribunal stood by its ruling Thursday. "The judicial officers of the Traffic Tribunal know what their role is -- that it's not to create law," courts spokesman Craig N. Berke said. He emphasized that it's not in dispute that the driver involved had his phone in his hand and was looking up and down from his phone to traffic.
"It's the court's decision that this driver was distracted, was a danger to the motoring public and in violation of not only the letter of the law but the spirit of the law," Berke said. "The court limited its review to the plain language of the law and found that there is no ambiguity." He noted that the law carves out an exception for GPS devices that receive signals, including standalone devices like those made by Garmin and other brands.
Defense lawyer Christopher T. Millea and others in the defense community share Lima's view.
"The language is clear and unambiguous that [the law] applies to text, and it doesn't mention manipulating it in any way," Millea said. He said he believed the interpretation was unconstitutional, in that people "have a right to know what's legal or illegal."
Lawyer John Grasso agrees: "The legislature made it clear that 'text message' does not include using your device's GPS, music control, etc. ... With that in mind, this sentence of the decision gives me trouble: 'Consequently, based on the plain language of the statute, a reader may be looking at any visual display on the phone's interface and be in violation of the statute.' I disagree."
The ruling has won praise from those enforcing the state's laws who are concerned about the abundance of distracted driving. "It's a great decision for the motorists of Rhode Island," state police Capt. Dennis Fleming said.
At issue is a three-judge tribunal decision upholding a finding that Joseph Furtado, of East Providence, violated a state law banning text messaging while driving when a state trooper spotted him using his GPS. Furtado is appealing to state District Court.
If upheld, the tribunal's reading of the law would make Rhode Island the only state in the nation to ban any manipulation of a cellphone by drivers, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. However, talking on a cellphone -- an activity that many other states prohibit unless a hands-free device is used -- is still allowed.
©2016 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.