Hands-Free Driving Bill and Pre-Textual Stops

On May 15, 2019, the Massachusetts House approved a bill that would ban the use of cell-phones while driving, unless being used "hands-free" through bluetooth or other connectivity. The bill still must be approved by the Senate before becoming a law. The bill does include exceptions for mounted use of a cell phone as a GPS device, and in certain emergency situations.

A violation of this law would be a civil infraction, but there are implications that will touch significantly on criminal cases. Specifically, the law would give police officers a justification for stopping a vehicle that they may not otherwise have reason to stop.

So what?

The U.S. Supreme Court and Massachusetts both have endorsed the validity of pre-textual motor vehicle stops. Pre-textual stops occur when a police officer has a hunch that a motor-vehicle driver has committed some criminal offense, such as possessing drugs or driving under the influence, but does not have enough evidence to conduct a stop for that reason. So instead, the officer may stop the vehicle for a pre-textual reason, such as a minor civil infraction that they would normally not stop someone for. Once the driver has stopped, the officer will have a better vantage point to collect evidence of the crime for which they really wanted to prosecute.

The law has allowed these types of stops, even where an officer admits that he was stopping for a pre-textual reason. If the law did not allow this, it would diminish an officer's ability to stop a vehicle for any minor violation, and thus essentially make those violations null and void. Critics point to the fact that such pre-textual stops open the door for race-based discrimination.

Whatever one's opinion is on pre-textual stops is, this new bill would create yet another reason for a motor vehicle stop that could be used pre-textually. It would take very little for an officer to believe he sees the use of a cell-phone, and use that belief to stop for other reasons.

The Massachusetts legislature, as part of the bill, has made efforts to address the potential racial or gender discrimination in this context, by requiring the collection of the race and gender for any person cited for this. However, the bill does not require the collection for people who are stopped and not cited.

Although pre-textual stops are legal, an officer still must have sufficient justification to stop someone for the pre-textual reason. If a motor-vehicle stop has led to criminal charges, a criminal defense attorney can file a motion to suppress and argue that the stop was invalid. Contact an attorney today for a free consultation on your criminal charges.

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