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Federal Court Declares Indiana Texting Law Useless
Seventh Circuit US Court of Appeals overturns an Indiana traffic stop because looking at a phone behind the wheel is not evidence of texting.

Gregorio Paniagua-Garcia
Looking down at your phone while driving in Indiana is no longer a crime. The Seventh Circuit US Court of Appeals set that precedent last week in dismissing charges against Gregorio Paniagua-Garcia, a man who glanced at his phone while behind the wheel on September 27, 2014. Under Indiana law, it is unlawful to use a cell phone to type, send or read a text message or e-mail while driving. All other uses of the phone are perfectly acceptable.

"[This includes] making and receiving phone calls, inputting addresses, reading driving directions and maps with GPS applications, reading news and weather programs, retrieving and playing music or audio books, surfing the Internet, playing video games -- even watching movies or television," Judge Richard A. Posner wrote for the three-judge panel. "Most of these activities seem dangerous -- though no more so, and maybe less so, than texting -- and because a driver is more likely to engage in one or more of them than in texting, the most plausible inference from seeing a driver fiddling with his cellphone is that he is not texting."

Paniagua had been searching for music on his phone when Putnam County Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Simmons saw him behind the wheel of a Mitsubishi Galant on Interstate 70 staring intently at his cell phone. A search of the phone confirmed that no messages were sent while driving. The appellate judges concluded that Deputy Simmons had no reason to suspect Paniagua was texting.

"Almost all the lawful uses we've listed would create the same appearance -- cellphone held in hand, head of driver bending toward it because the text on a cellphone's screen is very small and therefore difficult to read from a distance, a finger or fingers touching an app on the cellphone's screen," Judge Posner wrote. "No fact perceptible to a police officer glancing into a moving car and observing the driver using a cellphone would enable the officer to determine whether it was a permitted or a forbidden use."

Prosecutors tried to argue that it was reasonable suspicion to believe Paniagua was texting because because his actions were entirely consistent with someone who was texting.

"The government appears to recognize no limit to the grounds on which police may stop a driver," Judge Posner countered in the unanimous decision. "Suppose the officer had observed Paniagua drinking from a cup that appeared to contain just coffee. Were the coffee spiked with liquor in however small a quantity, Paniagua would be violating a state law forbidding drinking an alcoholic beverage while driving, and that possibility, however remote, would on the reasoning advanced by the government and adopted by the district judge justify stopping the driver."

During the traffic stop, Paniagua said "go ahead" when Deputy Simmons asked if he could search the Mitsubishi. That search uncovered over five pounds of heroin. Because the traffic stop was found illegal, the drug evidence will be suppressed. The appellate court suggested that Indiana lawmakers might want to outlaw "fiddling with cellphones" entirely if it wishes to issue texting citations.

A copy of the decision is available in a 110k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File US v. Paniagua-Garcia (US Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, 2/18/2016)

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