California Appeals Court Rules That It Is OK to Hold Cell Phone to Look at Map

My HTC Android phone with map app circa 2014, a phone and app that the 5th District Court of Appeal aptly pointed out did not exist in any shape or form in 2006.Two years ago, Steven Spriggs was stuck in traffic and decided to look at a map on his smartphone to figure out a way out of the congestion. Sure enough, a CHP officer nailed him for "holding his telephone" and gave him a $165 citation for violating California Vehicle Code section 23123 (a), which prohibits drivers from “using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.” 

Spriggs took it to court as he was not actually listening or talking on the phone, but merely looking at the map. He lost. Spriggs appealed and lost again, but the case was taken to the 5th District court of Appeal in central California for certification. Earlier this week, the 5th District court agreed with Spriggs, stating that the statute means what it says – it prohibits a driver only from holding a wireless telephone while conversing on it. 

In other words, it is not illegal to hold your cell phone in the car in California unless you are actually talking or texting on the phone. At least to look at a map. For now. At least.

The prior appellate division concluded that the statute was not “designed to prohibit hands-on use of a wireless telephone for conversation only,” but instead was “specifically designed to prevent a driver from using a wireless telephone while driving unless the device is being used in a hands-free manner,” and “outlawed all ‘hands-on’ use of a wireless telephone while driving.” The 5th District basically said this was hogwash.

The 5th District court statute indicated "had the Legislature intended to prohibit drivers from holding the telephone and using it for all purposes, it would not have limited the telephone’s required design and configuration to “hands-free listening and talking,” but would have used broader language, such as 'hands-free operation' or 'hands-free use.'  To interpret section 23123(a) as applying to any use of a wireless telephone renders the “listening and talking” element nonsensical, as not all uses of a wireless telephone involve listening and talking, including looking at a map application."

The court further said in its ruling that, "although the Legislature was concerned about the distraction caused by operating a wireless telephone while holding it, the Legislature’s focus was on prohibiting holding the telephone only while carrying on a conversation, not while using it for any other purpose.  This is not surprising, given that when the statute was enacted in 2006, most wireless telephones were just that – a telephone – rather than an electronic device with multiple functions." In other words there were no iPhones (launched in late June 2007) or other smartphones in use at the time the law was written, so how could they have contemplated use of the phone for viewing a map at the time.

I like this judge. He goes on to say that prosecutors' interpretation of the law to ban ALL hand-held use of cell phones would "lead to absurd results....If the phrase 'using a wireless telephone' includes all conceivable uses, then it would be a statutory violation for a driver to merely look at the telephone’s display if the telephone was not designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking.  It would also be a violation to hold the telephone in one’s hand, even if configured for hands-free listening and talking, and look at the time or even merely move it for use as a paperweight." LOL!

Prosecutors has asserted the statute would not be violated if a driver looked at a map application as long as the wireless telephone was mounted and the application was “activated using the phone’s hand[s]-free capability.”  However, as Spriggs points out, under this scenario the statute could still be violated merely by looking at the map application on the wireless telephone if the telephone was not designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking.

This is a breath of fresh air. A jurist that uses common sense! Thank you Court of Appeal of the State of California Fifth Appellate District! The actual write-up is at

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