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NJ bill would allow police to look at cell phones after accidents

A proposal pending before the New Jersey legislature would allow law enforcement officers investigating a car collision to demand and then inspect the cell phones of the motorists involved in the wreck. While some critics of this measure have raised constitutional concerns, it may mark a good first effort at reducing the number of deaths on the road attributable to behaviors like texting and driving or driving while talking on a cell phone.

New Jersey already limits the ability of drivers to use their cell phones while driving and has banned all texting and driving. Still, many police officers investigating car accidents say that drivers simply lie about their cell phone use prior to the wreck. Under this new measure, police that have "reasonable grounds" to inspect a driver's cell phone would be able to do so without a search warrant.

Critics believe that it intrudes upon civil liberties that New Jersey residents and all Americans enjoy under the United States Constitution. Specifically, they argue that the Constitution requires law enforcement to have probable cause before searching a cell phone. Even though the measure would require police to return the phone once they have reviewed the call history, critics argue that this still does not pass constitutional muster.

On the other hand, advocates of the new law point out the growing danger that distracted drivers are posing to the country's motorists due, in part, to the advent of modern portable technology. One expert suggested that just two years ago, over 3,000 people died and 387,000 people were injured because of distracted driving.

Even if this measure does not pass, however, accident victims should remember that if they elect to file a personal injury suit to receive compensation from the negligent drivers that injured them, they may be able to get access to the very information that police are complaining is so elusive. Specifically, because people do not have the same rights in civil cases as they would in a criminal case, they may have to turn over phone records and data as part of a routine civil subpoena.

Source: CNN, "After the crash: Driver's license, registration, cell phone, please," Ed Payne, June 12, 2013

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