State lawmakers push to tighten texting-while-driving laws

Attorney addresses concerns about profiling, privacy raised by proposal

By Jake Stofan - Tallahassee corespondent, Crystal Moyer - Traffic/reporter

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A deadly Sunday crash that killed a cyclist and injured six others in South Florida is the latest reminder about the dangers of distracted driving.

While investigators work to piece together what happened, state lawmakers continue their push to strengthen Florida's traffic laws in the hopes of making people safer on the road.

But it's not just lawmakers calling for change. Families who have lost loved ones are joining the chorus, saying the laws don't do enough to crack down on texting while driving.

Those families include fathers like Demetrius Branca, whose 19-year-old son Anthony was killed in 2014 by a distracted driver as he rode his motorcycle to class at Tallahassee Community College.

"We don't allow our cops to pull people over for doing something that is extremely dangerous," said Branca. "We allow people to just keep driving."

A year before Branca's son died, lawmakers passed a measure that made texting while driving illegal. But the law states drivers must be pulled over for another traffic offense before they can be ticketed.

Texting while driving is a primary offense for all drivers in 43 states, including Georgia. According to Georgia State Patrol, in the law's first month, nearly 1,000 citations were issued -- more than half for drivers holding or supporting a mobile device and 65 for texting while driving.

Legislation to add more teeth to Florida's existing laws has been filed every year since 2015, but concerns about racial profiling and potential privacy issues have put the brakes on any substantial change.

"The concern is how do you know what the person's doing, and last year the concern was can that be a pretext for pulling somebody over under false premises?" attorney John Phillips said.

Phillips agreed that something needs to be done to cut down on deadly wrecks as a result of distracted driving, but said that drivers also have the right to protect themselves and their private information.

"If your phone has an automatic locking device and your phone's locked, they necessarily can't compel you to enter your password,” Phillips said.

Under the latest proposal, drivers could still use cellphones for navigation. To talk on their phones, however, they would be required to use a hands-free device.

Last year, state Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, now the Senate Minority Leader, suggested that moving to hands-free devices would erase concerns about racial profiling.

"If we had hands-free, then there's no question and there's no issue," Gibson said at the time.

But Branca contends this year's proposal still leaves much to be desired.

"There are loopholes in there that allow people to escape by saying they were looking at their maps or something else, and to me that is inexcusable," he said.

A new device referred to as a Textalyzer is being developed. It allows law enforcement officers to download information from mobile phones to determine if and how it was being used at the time of or just before a crash. Phillips said that would be an invasion of privacy. 

Phillips said if you are in a state where texting while driving is illegal and you get caught, it's best to just tell the truth. If you were texting, a $150 fine is better than going through a lengthy court process and possibly having to give up your phone and any information in it, he argued. Phillips said all drivers have a right to privacy and are not required to consent to a phone or car search without a warrant. 

Keeping with current law, the proposed legislation allows for cellphone records to be accessed in cases dealing with death or physical injury. That could curb some of the privacy concerns voiced in years past.

Though this year's version of the bill has not been assigned to any committees yet, lawmakers will return to Tallahassee in December for the first rounds of committee hearings.

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