15 Sep 2014
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State Law Prevents Cops From Searching Driver Cell Phones

A resident says the Ridgewood Police Department should explore steps to check cell phones of drivers suspected of texting while operating a vehicle, but the village police chief says the law prevents that.

State Law Prevents Cops From Searching Driver Cell Phones

Texting while driving has gotten out of control, one Ridgewood resident contends. And if Ridgewood takes bold steps it could be a model for other municipalities, Anne Loving told the council Wednesday night.

Loving said she conferred with a Westchester judge, Ridgewood Police Chief John Ward and former mayor Keith Killion (an ex-police officer) to determine the legality of officers viewing cell phones for text messages without a search warrant.

The consensus was it would arouse constitutionality problems, but Loving believes it's worth investigating further.

"Monitoring would lead to fewer accidents," Loving said. She estimated one-third of drivers along the busiests roadways in the area are texting while driving.

It's among the most dangerous distractions for drivers – it disrupts visusal, manual and cognitive function, she added.

"Ridgewood could be at the forefront," Loving said, remarking that the village was among the first departments to take action against drivers speaking on cell phones.

But not so fast, Ridgewood Police Chief John Ward says. While some states allow for police to search a phone without a warrant, many do not. The courts nationwide remain divided.

"It is not legal in the state of New Jersey," Ward told Patch. "It has been deemed unconstitutional."

According to Ward, the police cannot just grab the phone during a motor vehicle stop or at the scene of an accident. 

"We need to get a warrant to look into it," he said. "The only way we would have the opportunity to seek cell phone records is if there's probable cause to believe the phone was involved.... but we'd need a witness and/or probable cause. We can't just arbitrarily check someone's cell phone."

The department has taken some steps to curb texting-while-driving, he said.

"We try and get out there as much as we can. I wrote three or four cell phone violations in the last month-and-a-half, even with my limited availability on the road."

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