Vermont Legislator Wants Warrantless Searches of Cell Phones to Combat Distracted Driving

Published: January 22, 2016 9:34 PM /


Vermont State Legislature

In an attempt to make roads a little safer, Vermont legislators are considering a bill to throw due process in the trash. The bill would allow police to make warrantless searches of cell phones and other electronic devices if they suspect the driver was using the device while driving. Critics suggest the language of the bill would allow the search of tablets and laptops in addition to phones. The justification for the law is the difficulty police officers are having proving that suspects are actually guilty of violating the state's distracted driving law. Allowing them to search a person's phone for recent activity may give them the information they need to prove their suspicions.

The bill's sponsor, Democratic Representative Martin LaLonde, admits he hasn't given much thought to what exactly be fair game for a search under this bill, which is not an encouraging sign at all. LaLonde has stated that he doesn't intend for officers to take the phone back to their squad car and rummage through it. LaLonde draws parallels to the state's law concerning breathalyzer tests, and brings up the concept of "implied consent." The current law considers anyone who drives a vehicle on a Vermont highway to have given implied consent to a breathalyzer test. If a person is suspected of driving drunk and refuse to take the test, that fact can be used against them in court. LaLonde's bill would work the same way, and refusing to hand over a phone to police would be used as evidence of distracted driving.

The law will likely run into constitutional challenges, as the Supreme Court had ruled in 2014 that warrantless searches of cell phones were unconstitutional. However, in the time it takes for the law to get overturned it may still cause some trouble. People may be intimidated into handing over their phones to police when they otherwise wouldn't have, for example.

Is abandoning the concept of due process a good trade-off to fight distracted driving? What are your thoughts on proposing such a bill without working through what should or should not be allowed? Leave your comments below.

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I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.