Man Wins Legal Battle Over Traffic Ticket By Convincing Court A Hash Brown Is Not A Phone

from the this-spud's-for-you dept

Readers here will know that we rather enjoy when an ordinary person takes extraordinary steps to clap back against government intrusions over speech and technology. A recent example of this was a Canadian man routing around a years-long battle with his government over a vanity license plate for his last name, which happens to be Assman. One thing to note on the technology side of the equation is that as legislation seeks more and more to demonize anything to do with technology, even in some cases rightly, it causes those enforcing the laws to engage in ridiculous behavior.

For example, one man in Connecticut has only just won a legal battle that lasted over a year, and cost him far more than the $300 traffic ticket he’d been given, by convincing a court that a McDonald’s hash brown is not in fact a smart phone. This, I acknowledge, may require some explanation.

On April 11th, 2018, Stiber was pulled over by Westport Police Cpl. Shawn Wong Won, who testified that he saw Stiber moving his lips as he held an object resembling a cellphone to his face while driving. Stiber’s lawyer, John Thygerson, countered by saying those lip movements were “consistent with chewing” the hash brown his client purchased at a McDonald’s immediately before he was pulled over.

Stiber also made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to acquire records showing that Wong was on the 15th hour of a 16-hour double shift and may have had less-than-ideal judgment when he pulled Stiber over. The judge concluded that the state didn’t bring forth enough evidence to show that Stiber was, indeed, on his phone while driving.

The fact that Stiber stared down this $300 traffic ticket to the tune of two separate trials and whatever the cost of his legal representation might strike some as absurdly stupid. On the other hand, Stiber was apparently wrongly accused. What matters the cost of getting proper justice served? Especially from a hash-brown-chewing man with such high-minded morals such as the following?

In the end, this outcome took two trials and more than a year to come by, and it cost Stiber legal fees exceeding the $300 ticket and four days of missed work. But he has no regrets: “That’s why I did it, because I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through this. Other people don’t have the means to defend themselves in the same way.”

Now, this might only bring up additional questions, such as why talking on a phone and eating a hash brown are treated so differently by law, despite them requiring similar bodily motions? Eating can certainly be distracting to driving, after all. Have you ever lost that last fry down by your lap or feet while on the road? I certainly have and there is no army in the world that could keep me from finding that delicious morsel under the right conditions.

But those questions aside, it’s a win for Stiber, who spent a year in court to prove that a hash brown is not a phone.

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Comments on “Man Wins Legal Battle Over Traffic Ticket By Convincing Court A Hash Brown Is Not A Phone”

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32 Comments
David says:

There is a difference

A hash brown does not talk back (if it did, it were a distraction). It does not provide unexpected input (unless it is filled with mustard). You can handle it without engaging any higher brain functions.

I do agree that this distinction does not seem entirely fool-proof since it would apply to electronomechanic self-satisfaction devices other than smartphones.

But I do see a difference.

Cdaragorn (profile) says:

Re: There is a difference

Except that those differences are nothing any driver should not already be accustomed to handling. If you can’t handle talking to someone on your phone then you can’t handle talking to someone in your car.

The fact is drivers have to handle potentially distracting things all the time. This fact does not make it sensible to make handling those distractions illegal.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: There is a difference

If you can’t handle talking to someone on your phone then you can’t handle talking to someone in your car.

If there is another person in your car, then there is (most likely) someone else in your car who is capable of watching the road and alerting you of danger. Two people with divided focus still provide more focus than a single person with divided focus.

stderric (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: There is a difference

Not to mention that a passenger can see the driving/traffic conditions and read body language expressing "focus lies elsewhere for important reasons", and not take an interruption in the conversation as a social slight.

Even with that, I still find myself letting fly with the occasional "Shut up a minute willya I’m drivin’ here."

Dave P. says:

Re: Re: Re: There is a difference

I drive for a living and I find that if a situation arises on the road that needs some sort of immediate action and I am talking to a passenger, then conversation ceases naturally. If a driver is on the phone (and hand-holding it), it’s a different scenario and I would guess the conversation would not immediately stop, i.e. "There’s something ahead and I’ll get back to you", plus, of course any attendant fumblings with the phone itself. Hands-free bluetooth is better, of course, but I still find it distracting and use it as little as possible.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: There is a difference

Difference between talking on a cell phone and talking to a passenger.

Both involve the same cognitive load, so some people may consider both activities to be the same… However, a passenger is far more likely to recognize when the traffic situation is getting tricky and SHUT UP. The person on the other end of a cell phone conversation won’t notice such things and will keep on talking causing the driver to split his or hers attention at a critical time.

hegemon13 says:

Re: Re: Re: There is a difference

Or the driver in that situation can say, "Call you right back," hang up, and drive. The person on the phone does not cause the driver to be distracted. The driver chooses to be distracted by the phone. There’s no one I know who would be offended when I called back later and said, "Traffic was bad and I needed to focus on the road." Literally no one. And if they were offended, I’d seriously rethink that relationship.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: There is a difference

In my area, they specifically say they look for the glazed over hyper-focused look in the driver’s eyes while looking at the phone instead of the road.

If the guy was looking at his hash brown this way, that would likely have triggered the ticket.

But regardless, this should be about distracted driving, not about phones.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: I'm surprised...

When Cailfornia implemented its headset law and than its total ban on touching your phone, I complained about this vary thing. If the issue is distracted driving, we already had that law.

However, police seem unable to get distracted driving to stick for talking on a phone. In fact the reason CA has 2 anti cell phone laws is the original was too narrowly written and so the smartphone had functions you could legally use while driving, and instead of employing distracted driving police sought a new law. I would be curious why that is.

Connecticut must, similarly to CA, have an anti-cell-phone law, and the officer insisted on writing the ticket under the cell phone law, as opposed to a general distracted driving law.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: I'm surprised...

Know anyone in the car insurance business? I saw an actuarial table 5-6 years back that equated the "value" of various distractions while driving to an equivalent amount of alcohol. IIRC, eating while driving was about 2 ounces of alcohol.

When there’s a serious accident, the cops pull the phone records of all the drivers to see if any of them were texting at the time of the accident. Or did, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if voice calls could be "used" to claim fault as well now.

I suspect in a fatal accident, finding a dead driver with a mouthful of food would immediately assign fault.

And, yes, there must be a pile of laws covering specific distractions as well as the umbrella charge. My suspicion is that the umbrella charge is too nebulous, much like the Unsafe Driving Practice which covers everything from driving on the wrong side of the street to driving barefoot. Too easy to be dismissed in court.

Anon says:

The Main Point - cost money

The point is if every wrongly accused person did their civic duty and put their money toward dragging their town into court – then the town would eventually realize – "hey, we’re spending way too much money defending absurd tickets!" They might actually listen to reasonable defences, and might, for example, demand more proof from their officers than "I saw his lips move" when claiming someone is on a cellphone. I mean, what if the guy were on a handsfree call while eating a hash brown? What if he was singing along to his favourite song (or fast food commercial)?

I’ve taken the same tack – if you’re going to cost me money, I’m going to cost you money. Especially if the ticket is not deserved, even if the judge ignores me, I’ll cost you in officer overtime and court time.

Ben (profile) says:

He's confused

"That’s why I did it, because I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through this. Other people don’t have the means to defend themselves in the same way."

And what would keep the next hash brown wielding driver to not be ticketed? The case centered entirely on the particulars. If the police are expected (or allowed) to enforce "no cellphone use while driving" laws, there is nothing in this case which stops them from misidentifying a breakfast treat: the driver would then need to appeal the ticket in exactly the same way.

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