Bill would reduce penalty for texting while driving

JUNEAU — The Senate Judiciary Committee examined legislation Monday aimed at boosting enforcement of Alaska’s ban on texting while driving.

It would reduce the penalty for driving while texting without causing an injury from a misdemeanor to a violation, making it possible for officers to issue citations to distracted drivers. Stiffer penalties would remain in cases involving injury or death.

Lt. David Hanson, a spokesman with the Alaska Bureau of Highway Patrol, has testified that troopers are less likely to charge someone under current law requiring proof that a driver is distracted by a screen device. Hanson said it can be difficult for a trooper to document a driver using a mobile device. Under the current law, roughly one person per month was charged with violating the law from 2012 to 2015, he said.

Lawmakers questioned the search and seizure implications of traffic stops during which drivers are accused of texting or operating a mobile device illegally.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said some drivers choose to pull over on the side of the road and respond to messages.

“What happens in that case if there were, even, an accident that was not your own fault?” Micciche said. “Is there an easy way for them to prove that your vehicle had stopped?”

If a driver voluntarily turned a phone over to be searched, it could be easier to determine when texting had occurred. However, officers would have to apply for a warrant in situations when the phone was not voluntarily turned over.

The director of the state’s Office of Public Advocacy, Rick Allen, said there would be no incentive for a driver to voluntarily give a phone over to be searched by police. Further, he said, it is unlikely that law enforcement would take the time to seize and search a cellphone in a traffic stop situation when the drive had not caused serious physical injury or death as a result of texting while driving.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said that while she supported the idea behind the bill, she hopes future lawmakers would revisit it to make sure it was being used appropriately.

“With every tool that you give law enforcement, there’s always the potential for abuse,” she said. “That abuse can come in the form of search and seizure and an improper stop to sort of ascertain more than what the state reason is. I would hate to see Alaskans’ individual privacy rights abused.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 46 states ban texting while driving.

The bill is sponsored by Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage.

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