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An Overview of Cell Phone Tickets and Distracted Driving in New Jersey


Interviewer: What can you tell me about the State of New Jersey currently being in the process of changing the law regarding cell phone tickets and distracted driving?

James Abate: Last year, last July First, 2013, the New Jersey Cell Phone law, which is 39:4-97.3 was changed. The change resulted in new and much more serious penalties on … It used to be that a cell-phone ticket was a hundred-dollar fine. It was one of those offenses where we would look to get that ticket, so if you got in trouble through something serious. We’d say, “Hey, how about … Could we make it a cell-phone ticket?” That was something that was coveted.

The Penalties for Cell Phone Ticket Have Been Enhanced

Well, now, instead of a hundred-dollar fine it’s, on a first offense, it’s a two-hundred to four-hundred dollar fine. On a second offense it’s up to six-hundred dollars. On a third offense, it’s up to eight-hundred dollars, and on that third offense you lose your license for three months. That’s as much as a first-offense DWI, and I believe there are five points on a third offense as well. To be quite honest, nobody knows what’s going to happen when those new fines kick in on July First. I’ve spoken to a lot of judges who aren’t clear about it.

It is Unclear What the Situation will be for People with Prior Cell Phone Tickets Once the New Law Goes into Effect

Most lawyers don’t even know that it’s happening, so these are new sentencing guidelines for it, and there’s a lot that has changed, and especially for people who have prior offenses that they got before this all broke out, it’s unclear what’s going to happen to them.

The Use of Any Hand Held Device While Driving Results in the Issuance of a
Cell Phone Ticket

Interviewer: How do we define this cell-phone usage? What is exactly the part they’re looking out for? Is it someone talking on the phone? Is it someone texting? Is it someone just looking at a phone?

James Abate: It is any use of a hand-held device. Well, any use of a hand-held device for texting. You can’t text. You can’t put the phone up to your ear, but if you have a Bluetooth device and you simply are pushing a couple of buttons to dial the number, to access your contacts, there is a case law out there which permits you to do that. It’s rarely used, but most people just pay the ticket, because it was just a hundred dollars, no loss of license or anything, but that’s pretty much it. There are some exceptions, such as an emergency situation. If you are in an emergency, of if you are calling the police or authorities to report a criminal matter, then you have immunity from it.

Texting is a Common Offense Committed by People While Driving

Interviewer: How does a police officer know that someone is texting?

James Abate: You can usually see it. I’m sure when you are driving down the road, you can see if somebody is texting. You can see by the way they’re driving, and when you get within fifty feet, fifteen-hundred feet, you can see that they’re looking at something, and it’s not the road. I’ll tell you, I fully support the effort to crack down on people who text and drive, or in some cases, watch movies and drive. I’ve seen people with the phone up on their dashboard, getting ready to watch Gladiator or whatever, and they’re driving at the same time.

A Drunk Driver has 17% Reduction in Reaction Time Whereas a Driver Who is Texting has a 46% Reduction in Reaction Time

There was a study I saw that said a drunk driver has a seventeen-percent reduction in their reaction time, whereas a distracted driver using a cell phone or texting has a forty-six percent reduction in reaction time, so it’s worse than a drunk driver. I certainly hope they’ll create a culture where it’s not acceptable to text and drive any more. I don’t want people to get hurt on the highways, I don’t want to be hurt, I don’t want family members hurt, and it really is becoming something which it needs to be brought under control.

Fortunately, the state and local police are more than willing to do that now, and you’re going to be seeing with these new penalties, they’re going to have the motivation to really hit people with these tickets, and people are going to start losing their licenses. One thing that is going to have to be figured out is, let’s say I represented you and you had a speeding ticket, and I reduced that ticket to a cell-phone ticket. You are thrilled. Or, let’s say, you are the second lawyer who did that for you. Now you walk into court with your first-ever actual cell-phone ticket, but you’ve got those two priors on your record, and there are a lot of people in that situation.

With the Increase in Strict Penalties, People with Cell Phone Tickets will be Seeking Legal Counsel

Well, if you’re convicted, you’re losing your license for three months and you’re getting an eight-hundred dollar fine. That’s a higher fine than for a first-offense DWI, and it’s the same suspension as a first-offense DWI. I predict that there are going to be a lot of people seeking counsel on the cell-phone tickets now than hadn’t been before.

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