Are police exempt from cell phone ban?

March 6, 2008 1:48:20 PM PST
Is the long arm of the law exempt from the state's new ban on the use of handheld cell phones while driving? Some motorists are upset police who can now pull them over for driving while talking on their cell phone without a headset don't practice what they preach.

"It's ridiculous. What's the sense of giving a fine to us if newspapers.

Since Saturday, driving while using a hand-held cell phone, or text messaging, is a primary offense in New Jersey - meaning police need no other reason to pull a driver over. Motorists who are stopped face a $100 fine if they are caught in the act.

The new law has generated debate on whether the officers who write those tickets - about 150 after the first weekend - should be using their hand-held cell phones to talk while behind the wheel.

"Police officers should be an example for everyone else," said Pam Fischer, director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety. Fischer said. "There might be a situation where they can't use the radio. But the bottom line is, they shouldn't be driving with handheld cell phones."

State police say there are times when they need to use cell phones to do their job.

"We can use it for law enforcement-related matters," said state police spokesman Sgt. Julian Castellanos.

Some New Jersey police departments are still trying to reconcile the issue.

"It's a new statute and we're going to have to study it," said Clifton Detective Capt. Robert Rowan.

In Paterson, the department took a hard line on cell phone use in 2004, when the state made the practice a secondary offense - meaning drivers couldn't be pulled over for that offense alone.

Since then, a handful of Paterson police have received written or oral reprimands for using hand-held devices, according to Detective Lt. Anthony Traina.

"They have to listen to the radio. They have to do patrol. So we advise to pull over and make the call, instead of in motion," Traina said.

State troopers also rely on radios, and many use headsets, a spokesman said. Still, motorists shouldn't be surprised if they spot a trooper with a phone to the ear.

"There are times when the radios don't work because of reception," said Sgt. Stephen Jones. "There's also confidential information that can't be shared over airwaves."

In New Jersey and four other states, including neighboring New York, talking on a hand-held cell phone is reason enough to get pulled over. The Garden State is the first where text-messaging on the road is a primary offense, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.