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Debate over post-crash cell phone access by police rages on

A lawmaker here in New Jersey made headlines in legal communities across the nation earlier this summer when he introduced legislation that would enable police officers to seize the cell phones of motorists involved in car accidents.

Introduced by state Sen. James Holzapfel (R-Ocean), the legislation calls for police officers to be granted the authority to seize the cell phones of motorists involved in crashes (sans warrant), and scan through their text messages if they have reasonable grounds to believe that the state's ban against talking and texting on cell phones was violated.

The proposed legislation has understandably sparked a rather rigorous debate. Some argue that it would make New Jersey's roads and highways altogether safer, greatly reducing the number of distracted driving related injuries and fatalities, which in 2011 alone reached 807 and six respectively.

These proponents of Holzapfel's bill also argue that an officer's ability to scan a cell phone would serve to make the accident reconstruction process, which is already exceedingly complex, just a little bit easier. Currently, investigators have a difficult time determining if a person was actually on their phone during the crash even with detailed records from the phone company.

To illustrate, prosecutors in Washington Township recently dropped the pursuit of a case involving the death of a 17-year-old girl, as they simply couldn't determine whether the driver of the car in which the girl was riding was talking on her cell phone at the time of the fatal accident.

For their part, opponents of the proposed legislation are still maintaining that such a law would be both unconstitutional and ineffective. For instance, they point out the potential problems that could arise if the cell phone contained evidence of criminal activity or the simple fact that a driver could erase their messages in the initial moments after the car accident.

“Why should we give up our rights and what are we giving it up for? If police think [cellphone use] is an issue, let them do what they’re supposed to do to let them show probable cause in other ways,” said one New Jersey attorney.

It should be interesting to see if the dialogue concerning Holzapfel's bill changes and whether it is ever able to gain traction in the state legislature. In the meantime, police officers will continue to seize phones from accident scenes and secure the necessary warrant before scanning through them.

What are your thoughts on the idea of police looking through your cell phone after a car crash? Is it too much power or a good idea?

Source: The South Jersey Times, "Proving texting as cause of crash, dealing with privacy no easy task," Michelle Caffrey, August 4, 2013; The Star-Ledger, "License, registration and cell phone: Bill would let N.J. cops search phones after crashes," Ryan Hutchins and Matt Friedman, June 10, 2013

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