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City looks to tighten cellphone laws while driving

Cellphone
Photo by Ed Brown

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

The Missoula City Council will consider making changes to a city ordinance covering the use of mobile phones while operating a motor vehicle, in part due to challenges that arise when prosecuting offenders.

Proponents of clarifying the ordinance told the City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee on Wednesday that doing so will make enforcement easier.

“What we’ve run into over the years is that the current ordinance has so many exceptions to the rules,” said Andrew Scott, chief prosecuting attorney for the City Attorney’s Office. “Unless a defendant comes into a trial and admits to using the phone to text or have a conversation, we cannot prove the violation has occurred.”

Scott said subpoenaing phone records to prove a violation takes time, and information varies from one phone company to the next. It’s hard to match the time on an officer’s watch to the motorist’s phone to prove he or she was talking while driving, he added.

Scott also dispelled suggestions that the City Attorney’s Office was requesting the changes based upon trials lost over the three years since the city adopted its existing cellphone ordinance. He said the city lost just eight trials in 2015 and roughly 10 trials in 2013 and 2014 combined.

“Compared to the number of tickets written, which has been in the thousands, the trial losses are a drop in the bucket,” he said. “It’s frustrating for us and the officers because people come in and say they were using the phone to scroll for music or putting an address in GPS when we knew they really weren’t.”

Scott believes the current ordinance doesn’t follow the original intent of getting motorists to pay attention to driving. Hands-free devises would be permitted under the changes.

“The new language addresses those concerns,” Scott said. “It makes the violation very simple. If you’re using the phone for any purpose, that’s the violation, and that will improve safety on the streets in Missoula more than an ordinance that has 13 exceptions.”

Ward 2 council member Harlan Wells asked for and will likely push for an exception for law enforcement officers.

Wells, who works as a reserved deputy with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies on duty are entitled to drive faster than citizens, and they should be permitted to use their cellphones, even where citizens cannot.

He said 90 percent of the time that deputies spend on their cellphones is related to work. He said they typically use their cellphones to stay off the radio so citizens cannot listen to their conversations over the scanner.

“I have an issue of a blanket ban on law enforcement using their phones, because there’s times where it’s just more convenient,” Wells said. “I’d like to see this altered so that law enforcement has the option to opt out if policy allows.”

While current policy allows for officers to opt out, Missoula Police Chief Mike Brady said his department maintains a policy that holds police officers to the same standards as citizens when using cellphones while driving.

“If council chooses to keep that in as an exception, we’ll continue with our directive in MPD to not use them,” Brady said in response to Wells. “It feels to us like it’s a better fit to have hands-free devices.”

The committee adopted the proposed changes to the city’s ban on using cellphones while driving, though it did not include Wells’ request to make an exception for police officers.

The City Council will consider adopting changes to the ordinance on April 25.