Texting at the Wheel: Should Police Be Able to Examine Your Phone?

New York State is considering legislation to require drivers involved in auto accidents to allow the police to inspect their mobile phones for signs of recent activity. Presumably signs of such activity would be grounds for charges for driving while distracted, and might lead to evidence to support civil liability as well.

It’s interesting that the technology for detecting such recent activity does not currently exist, but it is being developed as the legislation is working its way through the process.

The developers, the legislators and the police all say that the technology will not permit any review of the content of the phone activity, such as the content of messages, just that the phone was being used at all.

Does this sound like a good idea to you, assuming the technology actually works? Would it be a useful incentive for drivers not to use their phones, if their use will be detected after an accident? The risk of the accident itself is apparently not sufficient … since there are a lot of such accidents. Or is ‘function creep’ inevitable, and the scope of the examination bound to expand?

The Fearon decision of the Supreme Court gave the police considerable ability to search phones in search of evidence of crimes. Would Fearon extend to searching for evidence of the use of the phone when it was prohibited? In other words, would Canadian law already allow the police to use the prospective technology, when and if it is created?

The news report at the link speaks of problems identifying who in the car was using the phone, if there was more than one person. Do other issues or opportunities occur to you?


  1. I find this particularly interesting, considering the parallels it has to the legislation presently under consideration in Canada regarding granting the police the authority to require drivers who are legally stopped to provide a breath sample. There is a lot of room to compare and contrast the different civil rights issues and the reasonable limitation of those rights relating to these proposals.