California Vehicle Code section 23123(a) reads: “A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.”
From the get go, this law was interpreted by law enforcement to mean that merely holding your cell phone while driving was against the law, regardless of the activity being conducted on or through the phone.
This all changed last month when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of People v. Spriggs.
In that case, Steven Spriggs, while stopped in heavy traffic, pulled out his cellphone to find an alternate route to his destination on his phone’s map application. Unfortunately for Spriggs, it just so happened that a California Highway Patrol officer spotted him looking at his cell phone and issued him a citation for violating 23123(a) VC.
Spriggs, however, believed that he his actions were not in violation of the law because he was not actually talking on his cell phone, but simply looking at a map. In fact, he believed in his innocence so heartily that he was willing to fight the trial court’s judgment against his position by taking the matter up to the Court of Appeals.
As it turned out, it’s a good thing he did, because the Court of Appeals agreed with his argument: “We agree with Spriggs and conclude, pursuant to the rules of statutory interpretation, including our review of the language and legislative history of section 23123(a), that the Legislature intended the statute to only prohibit the use of a wireless telephone to engage in a conversation while driving unless the telephone is used in a hands-free manner. Therefore, we hold that Spriggs did not violate section 23123(a) and reverse the judgement.”
So what does this mean for you? It means that, as of now, you are allowed to use your cell phone while driving for any purpose other than to hold a conversation. Does this include texting? Probably not, but time will tell for certain, as new laws are in the process of being written in response to the new decision. While it’s still recommended you keep your eyes on the road at all times while driving, checking your GPS, e-mail, or social media, in and of itself, is not a violation of 23123(a)—for now.