Texting and Driving: What Are Police Looking For Before Traffic Stops

Texting and Driving: What Are Police Looking For Before Traffic Stops

If you think it’s annoying that some people don’t wear masks, wait until you hear about texting and driving. According to a survey by the National Safety Council, folks are more willing to wear masks than they are to stop texting and driving.

Texting and Driving is Illegal in North Carolina

Under North Carolina law, it’s “unlawful for any person to operate a vehicle on a public street or highway or public vehicular area while using a mobile phone to” “[m]anually enter multiple letters or text in the device as a means of communicating with another person.” It’s also unlawful to “[r]ead any electronic mail or text message transmitted or stored within the device….”

But if you haven’t stopped texting and driving, you probably wonder what it takes to get pulled over. After all, how can an officer tell the difference between “[m]anually entering letters or text” versus using an app, like Google maps?

The North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an opinion earlier this week that makes the answer clear: there’s not much difference.

NC Court of Appeals addresses texting and driving.
Image courtesy of Bill Oxford on Unsplash.

The Background of the Case

In November 2014, a Statesville Police Officer saw a white Mercedes traveling with a “large glow coming from inside the” car. The officer followed the Mercedes and noticed the glow become “more prevalent.”

When both vehicles stopped at a stop sign, the officer recognized the glow was coming from a cell phone. Specifically, the officer testified that he could “see the phone was up in the air, almost like the center.”

The officer subsequently pulled the car over on the suspicion that the driver was texting while driving. When he approached the car, the officer told the driver he stopped him for texting while driving.

In response, the driver purportedly “kind of laughed at that notion” and claimed he use using the phone’s “maps” application because he had “somewhere to get to.” Yet, when the driver retrieved his phone, the officer notice that “immediately as soon as he turned his phone on, it was [on] a texting screen.”

The officer obtained the driver’s license and registration and walked to his vehicle to confirm the driver’s identity. When he did, though, the driver of the vehicle sped away. The officer originally pursued the Mercedes. But he eventually ended the pursuit due to the driver’s high speed and dangerous maneuvering.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals weighs in on texting and driving.
Image courtesy of Sergey Tarasov on Unsplash.

The Defendant’s Argument

Law enforcement eventually identified the driver as Tevin O’Brian Dalton and charged him with several crimes. But Dalton moved to dismiss the charges, arguing that the officer didn’t have a valid reason to pull him over. After all, he claimed, not every use of a cell phone while driving is illegal in North Carolina.

Yet an Iredell County judge and a three-judge panel on the North Carolina Court of Appeals all rejected Dalton’s argument. Both courts ruled that the officer’s testimony that the driver was using and handling a cell phone “in a manner consistent with texting or reading text messages” was enough to justify the traffic stop.

“In sum,” the Court of Appeals concluded, “just because a person may be using a wireless telephone while operating a motor vehicle for a valid purpose does not, ipso facto, negate the reasonable suspicion that the person is using it for a prohibited use.”

With thousands of people dying every year from distracted driving, states are cracking down on texting and driving. And, as this case illustrates, an officer doesn’t need much probably cause to pull you over for it.

Interested in keeping up with the North Carolina Court of Appeals? Visit our North Carolina Court of Appeals coverage or our Law section!

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