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Conviction Overturned for Driver Using Cell-Phone in Connecticut

Conviction Overturned for Driver Using Cell-Phone in Connecticut

The Case: State v. Dunbar

On April 29, 2014 Lonnie Dunbar was driving on Route 66 in Columbia, Connecticut when he received a phone call. Wearing a head-set, he grabbed his phone, brought it to about “steering-wheel level,” and tapped the “answer” button.

At the same time Dunbar grabbed at his phone, State Trooper Josh McElroy sat thirty feet away, watching Route 66 looking for traffic violations. McElroy turned on the lights, pulled Dunbar over, and issued him a citation for operating his cell phone while driving, a violation of Connecticut General Statutes § 14-296aa.

Mr. Dunbar pled not guilty and went to Court. There, the trial Court found Dunbar guilty, ruling that the State provided sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Dunbar was “using” his phone and therefore, in violation of Connecticut law. Dunbar appealed.

On appeal, the State re-argued that it offered enough evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Dunbar was guilty. First, the State offered the eye-witness testimony of State Trooper McElroy, who explained that he saw Dunbar holding the phone near the steering wheel and that he appeared to be wearing some sort of “walk-man.” Second, McElroy testified that when he approached Dunbar’s vehicle, Dunbar admitted that he picked up his phone and answered it. In sum, the State has Trooper McElroy, and Dunbar testifying that the phone was in use.

However, Dunbar, representing himself, also had an argument. Remember the walk-man? The more likely scenario, since it is no longer 1989, is exactly what Dunbar explained. He testified that the alleged walk-man was actually a microphone and headset that he used to answer calls, which is completely legal under Connecticut law. So when he grabbed his phone and brought it to steering-wheel level, it was simply to tap the “answer” button.

The question for the Court became: Has the State provided sufficient evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Dunbar violated the law? In order to answer that question, see the law below.

The Law:

“No person shall operate a motor vehicle while [1] using a hand-held mobile telephone to [2] engage in a call.” C.G.S. §14-296aa(b)(1).

First question, what is “usage?” In the definitions section of the statute, usage is defined as “holding a mobile-phone to, or in the immediate proximity of, the user’s ear.” C.G.S. §14-296aa(2).

Second question, what is the distance to determine “immediate proximity?” Again in the definitions section, the statute states: “immediate proximity means the distance that permits the operator of a hand-held mobile telephone to hear telecommunications…but does not require physical contact with such operator’s ear.” C.G.S. §14-296aa(7).

After the first two questions to determine if Dunbar was “using” the phone, there is no clear answer. The testimony explained that the cell phone was held at steering-wheel level. Is that close enough? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s move on.

Third question (assuming that Dunbar is guilty of “using” the phone), what is the legal definition of “engaging” in a call? Do you have to be really focused on that call, engaged in the conversation? Fortunately, the law defines it for us, as “talking into or listening on a hand-held mobile telephone, but does not include holding a hand-held mobile telephone to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of such telephone.” C.G.S. §14-296aa(6).

Take Dunbar’s testimony: that he had a headset on, his phone rang, and he clicked the “answer” button. According to Dunbar, he never brought the phone up to his ear, and he was simply activating the call. Is this believable? Sure. But more importantly, does it cast any reasonable doubt on the State’s argument that he violated the law? Absolutely.

After all testimony, the appellate Court agreed with Dunbar. There is simply not enough evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he held the phone close enough to his ear to engage in a call. Dunbar’s conviction has been overturned. With heavy budget cuts to Connecticut’s judicial system, do not expect the State to expend resources by appealing to the Supreme Court.

What About Texting?

Don’t do it, texting is forbidden under the statute regardless of whether you are sending or receiving a text: “an operator of a motor vehicle who types, sends, or reads a text message while operating a motor vehicle.” C.G.S. § 14-296aa(b)(1). Unlike calling, there is little room for interpretation with texting. However, if you are ticketed for texting, remember that the State must still prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were texting, which is nearly impossible unless they obtain your text records.

There are reasons for cell-phone usage laws while driving, we all know that, and we know there is good intent behind the law. However, the burden on the State to prove that you violated the law is heavy. Before checking “guilty” and paying your fine, think about what the State can actually prove, what you can prove, and do not fear our judicial system.