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California court rules it is okay for drivers to check mobile maps

The appeals court went by a strict interpretation of the statute under which the driver was charged

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An appeals court in California ruled that it is legal for a person to hold his phone to look at a map application while driving, though he is prohibited from "listening and talking" on the phone unless it is used in a hands-free mode.

Steven R. Spriggs, the appellant, held his mobile phone in his hand to use the mapping application to find his way around the congestion when stopped in heavy traffic. He was spotted holding his phone and pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer, according to court records.

The official issued him a traffic citation for violating Vehicle Code section 23123 (a), which states that 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."

Spriggs contested the citation and at trial before a Fresno County Superior Court traffic commissioner, he was found guilty of violating the section and fined US$165.

In an appeal of the conviction in the appellate division of the superior court, Spriggs held that he did not violate the statute because he was not listening and talking on the phone by holding it in his hand.

The appellate division upheld his conviction, holding that the statute was not "designed to prohibit hands-on use of a wireless telephone for conversation only," but "outlawed all 'hands-on' use of a wireless telephone while driving."

The Court of Appeal of the State of California, Fifth Appellate District, ruled Thursday that based on the language of the statute and its legislative history and subsequent legislative enactments, Spriggs was right, and reversed his conviction.

"Had the Legislature intended to prohibit drivers from holding the telephone and using it for all purposes, it would not have limited the telephone's required design and configuration to 'hands-free listening and talking,' but would have used broader language, such as 'hands-free operation' or 'hands-free use,'" the court observed.

The court said that this intent of the statute was not surprising as most wireless telephones were only telephones, rather than electronic devices with multiple functions, when the statute was enacted in 2006.

The government had argued that because under section 23123 (a) a driver may not use a cell phone unless it is used in a hands-free manner, the section is violated when a driver holds a phone and looks at a map application while driving. The statute would not be violated if the driver looked at a map application as long as the mobile phone was mounted and the application was activated using the phone's hands-free capability, it said.

The court said that subsequent enactments, including a 2012 amendment to a statute to prohibit text messaging while driving without the use of voice-activated, hands-free devices, has led it to conclude that section 23123 (a) does not prohibit all hand-held uses of a mobile phone.

The state's attorney general's office can appeal the ruling.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com



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