Appeals Court Says Indiana's Bad Anti-Texting Law Can't Be Used To Justify Stops Or Searches

from the 'suspicions'-not-even-remotely-'reasonable' dept

This is refreshing. A very stupidly-written law is the basis for evidence suppression in a drug arrest. Not only does the conviction vanish, but so does the law (more or less), thanks to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Looking down at your phone while driving in Indiana is no longer a crime. The Seventh Circuit US Court of Appeals set that precedent last week in dismissing charges against Gregorio Paniagua-Garcia, a man who glanced at his phone while behind the wheel on September 27, 2014. Under Indiana law, it is unlawful to use a cell phone to type, send or read a text message or e-mail while driving. All other uses of the phone are perfectly acceptable.

Because drivers are still free to perform other actions arguably more dangerous than texting (watching movies, browsing the web, reading ebooks, etc.), police officers cannot reasonably suspect that any driver they pass whose eyes appear to be focused on a device (rather than the road) are performing an illegal act.

An Indiana police officer, in the course of passing a car driven by Gregorio Paniagua-Garcia (whom for the sake of brevity we’ll call just Paniagua) on an interstate highway, saw that the driver was holding a cellphone in his right hand, that his head was bent toward the phone, and that he “appeared to be texting.” Paniagua denies that he was texting, the officer has never explained what created the appearance of texting as distinct from any one of the multiple other—lawful—uses of a cellphone by a driver, and the government now concedes that Paniagua was not texting—that as he told the officer he was just searching for music. An examination of his cellphone revealed that it hadn’t been used to send a text message at the time the officer saw him fussing with the cellphone.

So, Paniagua’s actions were actually lawful under the terrible law, but the officer used it as a basis for a traffic stop that ultimately resulted in the discovery of five pounds of heroin. As the court notes, the paper-thin basis for the stop is undermined by the law’s absurd focus on one device-related activity.

No fact perceptible to a police officer glancing into a moving car and observing the driver using a cellphone would enable the officer to determine whether it was a permitted or a forbidden use.

Using this law as the basis for stops is unreasonable. The court points out that lousy laws make for bad policing and a whole host of civil liberties violations.

The government failed to establish that the officer had probable cause or a reasonable suspicion that Paniagua was violating the no-texting law. The officer hadn’t seen any texting; what he had seen was consistent with any one of a number of lawful uses of cellphones. The government presented no evidence of what percentage of drivers text, and is thus reduced to arguing that a mere possibility of unlawful use is enough to create a reasonable suspicion of a criminal act. But were that so, police could always, without warrant or reasonable suspicion, search a random pedestrian for guns or narcotics. For it would always be possible that the pedestrian was a bank robber, a hired killer on the loose, a drug lord or drug addict, or a pedophile with child pornography on his thumb drive. “A suspicion so broad that [it] would permit the police to stop a substantial portion of the lawfully driving public … is not reasonable.”

The opinion dismantles the government’s arguments with aplomb, taking apart each assertion made to defend a drug bust predicated on something that doesn’t even approach “reasonable” suspicion. Extending the government’s logic to other possibly illegal acts, the court points out the government’s reliance on this terrible law is woefully misguided. Since the government can’t possibly know how many people looking at their phones while driving are performing illegal acts, it can’t base traffic stops on nothing more than the mere possibility something illegal may be happening.

Consider now that some drivers don’t have a driver’s license, or their license has expired. The logic of the government’s position is that either possibility, however slight, justifies the police officer in suspecting that the driver is not authorized to drive and in ordering him to pull over.

The opinion doesn’t go so far as to call the law unconstitutional or ask for it to be rewritten, but it does point out the legislation’s narrow coverage of a single action (texting) renders the entire law useless. Indiana law enforcement should no longer have any confidence that stops based on this perceived violation will hold up in court.

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Comments on “Appeals Court Says Indiana's Bad Anti-Texting Law Can't Be Used To Justify Stops Or Searches”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Don’t forget GPS. Pretty much every smart phone has an app on it that can perform GPS navigation. Either by default, or placed there by the user. Even with various options for the phone reading out directions, or displaying them somewhere on the dashboard, odds are decent you’re going to have to look down at the phone at some point, and do something to manipulate the app.

Ninja (profile) says:

So what does texting while driving cause? Accidents. Damage to public and private property. Injuries. What do we do to drivers that cause such things because of recklessness? That’s the whole point. Start severely punishing those who actually cause damages while texting and give it wide publicity. This should help mitigating the problem much more effectively than introducing stupid laws that will most certainly be abused by our great police force.

Avatar28 (profile) says:

I could see this resulting in much more restrictive laws that basically say doing ANYTHING on your phone is illegal. Need GPS? Better pull over and park. Need to change the music cause the song on right now sucks? Tough. Suck it up or park. There is at least one state where I believe that using ANY mobile device (phone, ipod, portable GPS etc) that isn’t attached to the car (e.g. in dash or whatever) is illegal and I believe that the window/dash mounts don’t qualify.

Anonymous Coward says:

what a poorly-written law

Somehow I doubt the framers of the Indiana law were advocating “watching movies, browsing the web, reading ebooks, etc.” as being acceptable while driving. I imagine they were ham-handedly trying to indicate that it is OK for people to talk on the phone while driving, and therefore merely having a phone in your hand is not illegal.

btr1701 (profile) says:


> The opinion doesn’t go so far as to call the law unconstitutional

That’s because it’s not. There’s nothing unconstitutional about a state outlawing texting-while-driving. If the cops pulled the guy over for speeding, and also noticed him using his phone, and asked for a consent search of it, if a time-stamped text was discovered showing he had been texting while driving, a conviction for that would be perfectly legal and constitutional.

The problem with this law is its enforceability all on its own. Without any predicate offense to justify a stop (i.e., speeding), it’s impossible to enforce. That’s an issue of practicality, not constitutionality.

Doesn’t Indiana have a generalized “distracted driving” law, the way most states do? They should have used that as the basis for the stop, since under that law, it wouldn’t matter what he was doing with his phone. If he’s not paying attention to the road, he’s in violation. Doesn’t matter if he’s fiddling with his radio, searching the web, eating a burger, or putting on makeup.

Jack says:

Sorry – Inattentive Driving in Indiana has a specific definition that this wouldn’t meet:

“inattentive manner” means the operation of a motor vehicle in a manner which evidences a lack of that degree of attentiveness required to safely operate the vehicle under the prevailing conditions, including but not limited to the nature and condition of the roadway, presence of other traffic, presence of pedestrians and weather conditions.”

Glancing down does not fit that definition.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Applicable logic

A suspicion so broad that would permit the police to stop a substantial portion of the lawfully driving public … is not reasonable

Can we get this statement enshrined? It has so many applications.

For instance dog sniffs which are known for averaging well over 50% false positives could used to permit the police to [search] a substantial portion of the lawfully driving (or for that matter, the lawfully standing or walking) public.

Can we challenge the compatability of dog sniffs with the Fourth Amendment on the same basis?

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