Practical Law Blog

What You Should Know About Distracted Driving in Utah

Distracted driving has gotten a lot of media attention recently because of fatalities resulting from people texting or talking on their phones while driving. State laws vary when it comes to distracted driving; in some states you cannot be ticketed for it without also committing some other offense, while in others it is a primary offense, and state penalties differ if you are convicted. Utah has the toughest distracted driving laws in the country; a recent accident that was attributed to distract driving killed two prominent scientists, so the state legislature was quick to respond.

What Constitutes Distracted Driving?

If a driver is not paying attention because he or she is using a cell phone while driving, it is considered “distracted driving.” Any or all of the following behaviors could be considered distracted driving:

  • Dialing a cell phone while driving or talking on one without using a hands-free device
  • Checking or participating on social media sites while driving
  • Texting while driving

Utah’s laws focus on texting while driving. Its current statute, SB253, states:

Except as provided in Subsection (3), a person may not use a handheld wireless communication device while operating a moving motor vehicle on a highway in this state to manually write, send, or read a written communication, including:
(i) a text message;
(ii) an instant message; or
(iii) electronic mail;

A person convicted of a violation of this section is guilty of a class C misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $100; or class B misdemeanor if the person has also inflicted serious bodily injury upon another as a proximate result of using a handheld wireless communication device in violation of this section while operating a moving motor vehicle on a highway in this state; or has a prior conviction under this section, that is within three years of:

(A) the current conviction under this section; or
(B) the commission of the offense upon which the current conviction is based.

What are the Penalties for Distracted Driving?

In Utah, offenders who are involved in a fatal accident while texting and driving can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and pay a fine of $10,000. The state reasons that texting and driving is similar to driving while intoxicated and should be punished as harshly.

Even if an offender doesn’t cause an accident, he or she can face hefty penalties for texting and driving in Utah. Offenders caught texting and driving may face up to three months in jail, as well as a fine of up to $750.

What are the Defenses to Distracted Driving?

In Utah, drivers cannot claim they didn’t know that texting and driving was dangerous; the law presumes all drivers know this. Thus, the only defenses involve proving improper police procedure or that the person did not text and drive.

In many cases, police must subpoena phone records to prove texting occurred. Some attorneys are questioning whether such subpoenas, especially if served in conjunction with an involuntary confiscation of the defendant’s cell phone in order to check records, are legal. These attorneys often argue that confiscating the phone and searching its logs for texts constitutes a violation of the suspect’s Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure. If a judge agrees, the phone records will not be admissible at trial.

In some cases, there is reasonable doubt as to whether a person was dialing a phone rather than texting, which does not carry the same penalties.

Finally, if a person confessed to texting while driving, an attorney may be able to prove that the confession was coerced or that the defendant’s request for an attorney prior to making the confession was ignored.

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