New Jersey Confiscation Law Lets Cops Take Phones Without Warrants

Joshua Ely

Legislation introduced in the New Jersey state senate would greatly empower law enforcement should it become a formal law. The law would allow police officers to confiscate the cell phones of drivers involved in accidents to determine whether or not the driver was in a call or texting at the time the accident took place.

Troublingly, no warrant is required for this search. Law enforcement must merely possess reasonable grounds on which to search. New Jersey already has an active ban on the use of handheld cellular devices. Drivers can be pulled over for reading or writing a text message. Just in May, new legislation imposed fines on drivers that texted, with $200 to $400 for first time offenders. However, supporters of the legislation still point to the numerous accidents caused solely because of distracted driving.

Senator James Holzapfel said that the law was no different from the one impacting drivers that have an open container of alcohol with them on the road and that it was unlikely that a police officer, however vigilant, would witness an accident firsthand

The year 2011 alone saw 1,840 cell phone-related crashes in the state, with 6 fatalities and 807 injuries.

Of course, the legislation comes at a time when the right to privacy is already a contentious issue. The ongoing debate would surely distract the State Senate from other matters, argue opponents of the legislation.

The ACLU of New Jersey even alluded to a legal battle on Constitutional grounds should the measure pass.

Police officers, in support of the bill, claim that they routinely use consent-based searches and that the law would leave this fact unchanged. Text messaging would be the sole function of the phone to come under scrutiny, since that action is among the most distracting. They also cite that the operation of a motor vehicle is a privilege, not a right.

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