So far 52 people have gotten tickets for violating the new ordinances in two local cities banning using a handheld cellphone while driving.
Idaho Falls and Pocatello are among the few Idaho municipalities — others being Blaine County, several cities within that county and Sandpoint — with such bans. Both passed their ordinances in late 2018 and started writing tickets earlier this year after a few months’ grace period to let drivers get familiar with the law. Police in Idaho Falls have written 21 tickets for violating the ordinance, while in Pocatello 31 drivers had been ticketed as of early July.
There is a statewide law that bans texting while driving, but it is seldom enforced as it only bans texting specifically and not other handheld uses of a phone. Bills to ban using a handheld cellphone while driving statewide have been introduced in the Legislature over the past few years but haven’t passed. This year Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, introduced a bill to ban using a handheld cellphone while driving, while Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Ammon, introduced one to override local bans like the ones in Idaho Falls and Pocatello. Neither passed; Rice’s was voted down 15-18 in the Senate, while Christensen’s was held in committee by one vote.
Idaho Falls police wrote three cellphone tickets in April, seven in May, nine in June and had written two in July as of July 11.
“Hopefully it (the law) acts as a deterrent,” said Lt. John Johnson.
It is up to an officer whether to write a ticket or issue a warning, and even though the grace period is over officers still do issue warnings in many cases, said police spokeswoman Jessica Clements. Driving is such a routine activity for so many people, Clements said, that motorists sometimes need to be reminded of the responsibility that goes with it and the potential for serious or even fatal damage a moment of distraction can bring.
“Education is almost as good as enforcement,” Johnson said. “It just depends on if the person is receptive.”
Pocatello police spokeswoman Dianne Brush said police haven’t been enforcing the ordinance as much as they otherwise might due to staffing levels. The police union has said Pocatello is losing officers and having trouble hiring new ones due to lower-than-average pay and low morale. After several months of contentious negotiations, the city and police union reached a deal last week for 5 percent raises, which will be included in the city’s 2019-2020 budget.
Meanwhile, local officials are watching a lawsuit in the Wood River Valley that could have implications for local cellphone use while driving bans statewide. The case arose from an April 2018 traffic stop in Hailey, where a woman was stopped for violating the city ordinance and charged with driving without privileges, which then became a probation violation as she was on probation for a driving under the influence conviction.
However, her lawyer successfully got the evidence suppressed by arguing that the Hailey ordinance under which she was stopped was an illegal preemption of the state’s authority over traffic laws. The city appealed, and Fifth District Judge Jonathan Brody heard oral arguments on June 18. Hailey Prosecuting Attorney Rick Allington appealed to the principle of local control, while opposing counsel Doug Nelson argued uniform statewide traffic laws are important.
“Mr. Allington refers to Justice Brandeis opinion in 1932 — states as laboratories of democracy,” the court minutes say. “This is more equally true for local jurisdictions. Hailey passed a law which reflected its community’s values.”
“Mr. Nelson refers to (a) proposed bill at (the) state legislature which didn’t pass,” the minutes say. “He argues the state has occupied the field, and they don’t want to take that up yet.”
Allington said he expects Brody to rule within the next 30 days. Whichever way it goes, Allington said, he doesn’t think the case will stop there.
“No matter what happens at the district court level, this is probably going up to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court,” he said.