Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Texting while driving is officially illegal in Florida as of July 1, but it's a pretty toothless law

Posted By on Tue, Jun 25, 2019 at 12:19 PM

Beginning Monday, July 1, law enforcement officers across Florida have the right to pull over and cite drivers they witness texting while driving.

The law makes texting and driving a primary offense, but surprisingly, there are many loopholes to get drivers out of tickets.

For instance, the officer must have proof that the driver was illegally texting and driving, which means checking outgoing and incoming texts. Yolanda Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the St. Pete Police Department, told ABC Action News that in order to for an officer to get that proof, they must inform the driver of their rights.

Fernandez gave an example of how the interaction would go down. The officer would ask, "By law, I have to tell you that 'you have the right not to give your phone to me as if I ask for it, do you understand that?'” If the driver says yes, the next question is, "'Would you give me your phone to look at?' And the driver can simply say no,” Fernandez said.

If the driver refuses to hand over their phone to the officer, the traffic stop ends, and the driver has the right to go.

Other exceptions for “texting” and driving include checking or inputting an address on a GPS. Fernandez weighed in on this instance as well. "It’s really hard to tell sometimes, well was that person lost and just checking their GPS on the phone over they actually texting?” The driver still may be pulled over, but will not be ticketed if they decide to hand their phone over to show proof of using GPS.

Drivers are also able to text while at a red light or stop sign.

It's a wishy-washy new law which seems to not carry much weight, considering an officer must prove a driver was in fact illegally texting while driving. But that proof lies in the hands of the driver, who could legally refuse to hand over the evidence.

Civil rights advocates have expressed serious concerns about this law disproportionally targeting minorities.

"People of color are overall more likely to be subjected to a police search once stopped – providing good reason to have concern about how this bill would allow for more officer discretion and racial profiling," said the American Civil Liberties Union in a previous statement.

A recent article by the Tampa Bay Times cited a 2014 study by the ACLU showing that black drivers in Florida were nearly twice as likely as whites to be stopped for not wearing seat belts.

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