In a new Appellate Division decision in State v. Troisi, Case No. A-1324-20, the Court expanded the scope of cell phone violations in New Jersey. In this case, the defendant was observed by a police officer with his cell phone in his hand and moving his fingers “in a texting like manner.” The officer pulled defendant over, and defendant “told the officer that he was activating his phone to use the hands-free navigation function, specifically to pull up Google Maps and search for directions to his ultimate destination.” Apparently, he must have acknowledged that he first had to type in his unlock code, before then opening the app.
At trial in the Municipal Court and on appeal to both the Law Division and the Appellate Division, defendant contended that this conduct did not violate the statute, based on the exception in the statutory definition of “Hands-free wireless telephone.” This provision states, “provided, however, this definition shall not preclude the use of either hand to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the telephone.” All three courts rejected a broad reading of the provision. Based on the context and legislative goal, all three held that this exception only applied to acts that involved minimal interaction with the phone (although they didn’t say it as such, it was clear that what they had in mind was the single click/slide used to answer phone calls). It’s clear from the opinion that the act of having to enter typing several characters, such as defendant did to unlike the phone, is sufficient to take the use out of the exception and constitute a violation. They noted that this is consistent with the legislative goal, which was to stop drivers from looking away from where they’re driving for more than very limited periods of time.
Our conclusion is that the exception has now been given a very narrow reading, and the charge will be supported if a driver is observing doing more with a cell than minimal interactions.