California Drivers Get Cell Phone Maps Back in Court Case

By Steve Anderson February 28, 2014

For Steven Spriggs, the idea of distracted driving is one that hits very close to home, as his own son got his leg broken in a traffic accident involving distracted driving. But when Spriggs himself was hit with a distracted driving charge and an accompanying $165 fine, the idea that distracted driving prohibitions may have gone too far hit Spriggs, and he fought back accordingly. Now, California drivers will get back a tool that is commonly used but was previously out of reach thanks to California law.

Spriggs landed his ticket for $165 back in January of 2012, when he was found reading on his iPhone 4 in traffic. This may sound like an open-and-shut case, but the full circumstances recast the perception surprisingly well. Spriggs wasn't checking his email or text messages or even his Facebook profile; Spriggs was looking at a map. What's more, when Spriggs turned to the iPhone 4 to get the mapping data in the first place, he was stopped, waiting for traffic to clear around a patch of roadwork being done.  Spriggs was checking the map for an alternate route around the roadwork when a motorcycle officer with the California Highway Patrol spotted him and delivered the ticket accordingly. Spriggs challenged the matter and took it to court, where eventually the 5th District Court of Appeal reversed the decision.

Getting the decision against him reversed took plenty of time and effort. First, Spriggs challenged the case in traffic court. After losing there, he then filed an appeal with the Fresno County Superior Court and lost there as well. A third try to the appellate court—this time backed up by a law firm that agreed to take the case pro bono—reversed the case against him and gave California drivers a very useful ruling.

Image via Shutterstock

The court said, as noted in an 18-page ruling, that the California law against talking on a cell phone without a hands-free kit—which Spriggs himself was reported to use when talking on a cell phone—could have stood a bit of clarification. The law was never really meant to apply to people looking at maps on cell phones, but rather in the court's ruling, to address people “listening and talking” on cell phones. Texting while driving, meanwhile, is illegal under a separate law.

But California drivers aren't out of the legal woods yet; there may yet come a challenge from the state attorney general's office and drive it to the California Supreme Court, and reports put the office as reviewing the ruling now.

This is actually something of a tough situation.  The idea that mobile devices are somehow less useful for mapping than a dedicated GPS device just doesn't make sense, and with devices like Google Glass poised to offer augmented reality navigation schemes that are head and shoulders above what traditional devices can offer, throwing the baby out with the bathwater just seems pointless. Cecilia Abadie struck the first blow for Google Glass use while driving, but the blow was less than conclusive, the case was thrown out on what was called “a technicality.” But trying to distinguish between “good” uses of mobile devices and “bad” uses in the field is difficult at best, and officers trying to make the distinction could find plenty of challenges on that front.

With mobile devices proving more useful almost daily, the role of law in determining what uses can be used where is likely to have plenty of legal trouble on the horizon. Spriggs, meanwhile, is likely just the beginning.

Edited by Alisen Downey

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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