A court case in Blaine County could have implications for bans on cellphone use while driving in Idaho Falls and other local cities.
The case arose from an April traffic stop in Hailey, where a woman was stopped for violating the city ordinance banning talking on a cellphone while driving. She was charged with driving without privileges, which then became a probation violation as she was on probation for a driving under the influence conviction.
Her lawyer, Doug Nelson, argued the initial stop was invalid and therefore, the charges should be thrown out since the city ordinance exceeded the authority a city in Idaho has. In October, Fifth District Magistrate Judge Daniel Dolan agreed that the ordinance was “contrary to state law,” according to the court minutes. Hailey is appealing the case to Fifth District court.
Idaho state law bans texting while driving, but the ban doesn’t apply to other uses of a cellphone and is little enforced due to the difficulty in determining what someone was using a phone for. Hailey and Ketchum passed ordinances banning using a handheld cellphone while driving in 2016, and Blaine County soon followed suit. Idaho Falls passed an ordinance this year banning using a handheld cellphone while driving. Police stopped drivers last week to warn them of the new law, and plan to start writing tickets in January. Pocatello also recently passed a similar ban, and Blackfoot is considering one.
Sixteen states have statewide laws banning using a handheld cellphone while driving. A similar bill proposed in Idaho this year passed committee but was rejected by the full Senate, with opponents calling it an example of government overreach.
Hailey Prosecuting Attorney Rick Allington said he is due to file another brief in district court in about a month arguing his case. He doesn’t expect that will be the end, though.
“I think this is probably going to be taken up by the Court of Appeals,” he said.
The legal disagreement, Allington said, comes down to the interpretation of Idaho code sections 49-207 and 49-208. The first one says cities can pass “general ordinances prescribing additional requirements as to speed, manner of driving or operating vehicles on any of the highways of such cities.” This, Allington says, means cities can ban handheld cellphone use by drivers.
The second code section lists ways cities can regulate highway use in their jurisdictions, and cellphone use is not among them.
“I think those are the two code provisions that need to be reconciled,” Allington said.
Nelson also cited 49-206 in his arguments to the court, which says the state’s motor vehicles code shall be “applicable and uniform throughout the state” and no local authority can regulate something state code already covers unless authorized.
In the meantime, Allington said, Hailey police aren’t enforcing the ordinance.
“I told my officers, let’s hold off on it,” he said. “It would just end up with this huge backload of cases that are going to be hanging out in limbo for who knows how long, and they’re just infractions. So I guess we’re going to wait and see what the court says about it.”
Nelson didn’t return calls by press time.
Idaho Falls city spokesman Bud Cranor said city officials “remain confident in our ordinance” but are following the Hailey case. Cranor said Idaho Falls included a sunset clause in its ordinance — it is only valid until Oct. 1, 2021 — as well as language describing it as a temporary measure in the absence of a statewide law.
“Our Council included a specific finding of need under the circumstances and the Council made the ordinance temporary, in order to comply with Idaho Code,” Cranor said in an email. “Hailey took another approach, so a ruling from the court of appeals most certainly will be helpful/instructive but maybe not entirely dispositive, or applicable to determine the validity of the Idaho Falls ordinance.”