On The Front Lines

The Rutherford Institute Sounds Warning Over Virginia Texting Law that Erodes 4th Amendment, Opens Door to Police Fishing Expeditions of Cell Phones

March 07, 2013

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Warning that a texting law approved by the Virginia General Assembly is vague and overly broad and has been drafted in such a way as to give police officers leeway to carry out fishing expeditions on drivers’ cell phones, thereby opening the floodgates to a broad range of civil liberties violations, The Rutherford Institute is asking Governor McDonnell not to sign the legislation. House Bill 1907 allows police officers to pull over anyone suspected of texting or reading emails or text messages while driving. However, as constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead points out in a letter to McDonnell, any marginal safety benefits gained by passage of this law will be wholly eclipsed by the threats it poses to critical Fourth Amendment rights.

“If the General Assembly wishes to discourage dangerous driving habits, they must do so in a manner that does not run afoul of the Constitution,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “In an age in which police officers have shown themselves to be increasingly aggressive and willing to discard Fourth Amendment prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures, even going so far as to perform invasive roadside cavity searches on female travelers without any probable cause of wrongdoing, this legislation renders the Fourth Amendment null and void and leaves Virginia drivers with virtually no civil liberties protection.”

House Bill 1907, passed by both houses of the General Assembly and now before Governor McDonnell for his signature, allows police officers to stop and arrest drivers whom they suspect are engaging in texting or reading emails and/or text messages while driving. The law also makes texting while driving a primary offense and levies a $250 fine for the first offense and $500 fines for any offenses thereafter. Under current law, although texting while driving is illegal, it is a secondary offense, meaning police cannot pull you over simply for texting. Cautioning the governor against signing the bill into law, Rutherford Institute attorneys warn that the broad language of the law places far-reaching powers in the hands of law enforcement agents, and any marginal safety benefits gained by passage of the law will be wholly eclipsed by the threats it poses to critical Fourth Amendment rights. Paramount among the Institute’s concerns are that it expands police powers to search individuals’ private property without a warrant, does away with the need for probable cause, and fails to provide police with adequate standards for determining whether there is sufficient cause to believe a driver is texting as opposed to numerous other activities that are not a basis for a stop of the vehicle, among other things.

Specifically, Whitehead points out that HB 1907 contains insufficient enforcement standards to ensure that officers are not empowered to stop drivers who are not, in fact, using handheld devices while driving.  Additionally, the legislation will presumably justify an officer’s intrusive search of a citizen’s private cell phone if the officer alleges that he or she witnessed the citizen texting while driving. And finally, the bill contains an unjustifiable, blanket exemption for law enforcement officers, which undermines the legislation’s putative purpose of protecting the public. Whitehead advises that until the General Assembly is able to identify and articulate clear standards to guide police in enforcing a no-texting-while-driving law, McDonnell should refuse to sanction an approach that places fundamental civil rights at the mercy of government officials.

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Nisha Whitehead
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