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Fresno panel says using iPhone map app in car violates the law

Posted on in Criminal Defense

A three judge panel in Fresno County has ruled that the use of the map app on an iPhone is prohibited under California's traffic laws. A 58-year-old man who works at Fresno State University says that he was caught in traffic in early January 2012.

While stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on California 41 in Fresno, he says that he checked his map. But the map was not a paper map, but a map app on his iPhone. A California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer was right there, and pulled the driver over to issue a ticket for unlawful use of a cellphone in a motor vehicle.

The man challenged the traffic ticket in superior court arguing that he was not talking on the hand held cellphone, and further arguing that he was not texting while driving. He reportedly brought a paper map into court to show that use of a paper map is more cumbersome than the smartphone app that he allegedly had been using.

The man represented himself (he says that he had attended law school but is not a lawyer). He argued in superior court that the law was being applied unfairly to the use of a map app on a smartphone. The judge disagreed, and the man appealed the decision to the appellate panel of the Fresno Superior Court, according to an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times.

The Fresno man says that a hearing on the appeal lasted for less than a minute and the appellate panel took the matter under advisement. The Fresno appellate panel reportedly ruled last month that the man violated the California distracted driving law. The court opinion says that "the primary evil sought to be avoided is the distraction the driver faces when using his or her hands to operate the phone," according to the Times. The judges say use of a wireless device involves distraction under the plain language of the statute whether the device is "used as a telephone, a GPS navigator, a clock or a device for sending and receiving text messages and emails."

The recent story may not involve a serious felony, but it does highlight the difficulties that statutory interpretation can present in any level of offense or crime. Authorities may decide to pursue charges based upon a prosecutor's interpretation of the law.

While the Fresno man did not overcome the charge in his challenge (he reportedly does not know if he will appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals, and the ruling is not binding on courts in the Santa Cruz area), a person should not face a conviction for a charge based solely upon the state's allegation that an act is prohibited under the law.

This blog has discussed a variety of situations where the law may not be clear, including in the area of the state's marijuana laws. Criminal defense lawyers seek to bring not only clarity to the law, but fairness while fighting ambiguous laws that make it unfair for authorities to seek to take away property or liberty interests through overreaching.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Just looking at your phone while driving is now a crime," Robin Abcarian," April 10, 2013

  • Our firm provides criminal defense for people accused of a crime in the Santa Cruz, California area. For more information, please visit the Santa Cruz County Court lawyer page.

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