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The Impact of Ohio’s New Distracted Driving Law on Traffic Stops & Criminal Charges

Posted On: May 1st, 2023   |   Posted by: Luftman, Heck & Associates LLP
Man using mounted cell phone while driving

As of April 2023, using your phone or other devices while driving in Ohio is illegal. The recently implemented distracted driving law aims to reduce accidents and fatalities caused by inattentive drivers. It increases penalties and allows officers to pull you over if they see a violation.

Everyone supports the need to stop distracted driving. While this new law has good intentions, it has also raised concerns. Unlike other initiatives, this new distracted driving law may inadvertently also lead to unjustified stops, increased vehicle searches, and the possibility for additional criminal charges.

Ohio’s New Distracted Driving Law

Ohio recently enacted Section 4511.204 of the Ohio Revised Code to address distracted driving. It’s now illegal to use or hold a cell phone or electronic device in your hand, lap, or other parts of your body while driving. The changes specifically target drivers using these devices to text, email, browse social media, or watch videos.

Drivers over 18 can use “hands-free” technology, such as Bluetooth or integrated systems, within the vehicle. They simply cannot physically support the device or manually enter data. The law increases the penalties and enforcement measures for those engaging in these dangerous behaviors.

Distracted Driving Penalties

Under the new distracted driving statute, using an electronic device while driving is now a primary offense. This means that law enforcement can pull over drivers solely for this reason without needing to observe any other traffic violations.

The new law brings new penalties:

  • 1st offense: 2 points on your license, up to a $150 fine.
  • 2nd offense 3 points, up to a $250 fine.
  • 3rd offense: 4 points, up to a $500 fine, possible 90-day license suspension.

Distracted Driving As a Primary Offense

With the ability to pull over drivers solely for using an electronic device, law enforcement has even more opportunities to initiate traffic stops. Witnessing someone engage in prohibited distracted driving behaviors is a relatively new concept compared to violations like making a U-turn, and violations usually lack the more concrete evidence of how radar supports a speeding ticket.

A lot relies on the officer’s observations. This may lead to fewer distracted driving incidents, but it also opens the door to potential abuses of power.

One major concern is the potential for racial profiling. Studies have shown that drivers of color are often pulled over at disproportionately higher rates. This new law inadvertently provides an additional pretext for officers to target minority drivers under the guise of enforcing the distracted driving law.

Vehicle Searches & Your Rights

Another concern related to Ohio’s new law is the likelihood of traffic stops for distracted driving leading to vehicle searches. When a driver is pulled over, law enforcement has the right to investigate if they have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or that there is evidence of criminal activity.

However, the new distracted driving law may allow officers to conduct searches without a legitimate reason.

For example, an officer could claim that they observed a driver using an electronic device when they simply wanted an excuse to pull the driver over and search the vehicle. After all, with the prevalence of smartphones, it becomes hard to argue that an officer saw it in your hand. These cases could quickly turn into your word against the officer.

These searches infringe on an individual’s civil liberties and erode public trust in law enforcement agencies.

More Stops Lead to More Arrests

While Ohio’s new distracted driving law is meant to improve road safety, there may be instances when a traffic stop for using your phone or checking a text could result in additional criminal charges. Here are some scenarios that could unfold:

  • Discovery of Illegal Drugs – When law enforcement pulls you over for texting, they may notice something illegal or suspicious in plain view, such as drugs or drug paraphernalia. As a result, you could be exposed to drug charges.
  • OVI/DUI Charges: If an officer suspects you are under the influence during the traffic stop, they may request sobriety tests. If you fail or other evidence of impairment exists, you could be arrested for operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI).
  • Outstanding Warrants: If, during the traffic stop, an officer discovers you have an outstanding arrest warrant, they can arrest you on the spot.
  • Unlawful Firearm Possession: If the officer finds you carring a firearm illegally or as a felon, additional criminal charges may be filed.
  • Driving with a Suspended License: If you’re found to be operating the vehicle with a suspended or revoked license, you’ll ace additional criminal charges and penalties aside from a simple fine for distracted driving.

Ohio Should Balance Safety & Your Civil Rights

Inattentive drivers cause tremendous harm on Ohio’s roads. Taking measures to reduce these accidents is necessary. But drivers need to be aware of the collateral impact of Ohio’s’ new distracted driving initiative on people’s civil liberties. They should take steps to avoid these negative, albeit unintended, consequences.

  • Implement Clear Enforcement Guidelines: Police departments should develop well-defined rules for officers to enforce the new distracted driving law. This includes training officers to recognize when a driver is genuinely using an electronic device and when they are not.
  • Strengthen Oversight and Accountability: Ensuring law enforcement has proper oversight and mechanisms for accountability can help prevent abuses. This may include regular reviews of traffic stop data, investigating complaints of racial profiling, and taking disciplinary action against officers who engaged in improper behavior.
  • Encourage Public Awareness: Educating Ohio drivers through public awareness campaigns, school programs, and community events about the dangers of distracted driving and the consequences of breaking the law can help reduce the number of traffic stops and their related ill effects.

Ticketing for Distracted Driving Won’t Begin Right Away

With few exceptions, anything that involves using, holding, or supporting an electronic device while driving is now illegal in Ohio. This includes dialing a number, texting, scrolling through social media, recording a video, or playing a game. But some of these activities are very engrained in how many people drive.

Law enforcement recognizes that it’ll take time to make people aware of the new law and allow them to address their distracted driving practices. As a result, and according to the Ohio Dept. of Public Safety, the Ohio State Highway Patrol and local Ohio police will only issue warnings for six months when they notice violations to educate and help motorists adapt to the new law.

Beginning October 5, 2023, law enforcement will start issuing distracted driving citations.

Consult a Columbus Defense Lawyer

No one disputes the need for Ohio to confront the issue of distracted driving. For too long, Ohio drivers have been forced to deal with individuals who seemingly cared more about what was on their phones than the safety of their fellow motorists. And while taking an aggressive stance against distracted driving may be necessary, it is not without complications that every driver needs to keep in mind.

If you’re wrongfully cited for distracted driving or charged with an offense stemming from a distracted driving stop, it’s best to consult an experienced defense lawyer. At Luftman, Heck & Associates, our team of Columbus attorneys is ready to listen and provide solid guidance.

Call LHA at (614) 500-3836 for a free consultation online.

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