Reasonable Suspicion – Texting While Driving in North Carolina

Texting while driving in North Carolina is both very common and very illegal.TEXTING LAWS IN NC

NHTSA studies indicate “distracted driving” results in a substantial number of vehicle-related accidents and fatalities.

Some highway safety experts believe texting while driving is as dangerous and possibly more dangerous than “drunk driving” given how common the practice has become.

It’s estimated that between 2013-2018 there were approximately 23,000 wrecks resulting death directly attributed to distracted driving in the US – Bill Powers, Charlotte Criminal Defense Lawyer

Distracted driving is also believed to be substantially unreported, as drivers understand the dangers yet continue to do so.

The vast majority of jurisdictions in the United States have some form of texting while driving law making it illegal (48 states and Puerto Rico, Washington DC, Virgin Islands, and Guam).

Is it illegal to text while driving in NC?   

As one might imagine, texting while driving is a law created by statute.

Reasonable minds may differ as to whether texting while driving may properly be deemed malum in se because of the likelihood and foreseeability of damage to persons or property (elements of reckless driving in NC).

Was the Stop Valid?

** Malum in se is a Latin term-of-art used by defense lawyers, prosecutors, and legal professionals that translated means “evil in itself.”

Prohibited uses of cell phones while operating a vehicle include texting, messaging, and emailing in certain circumstances.

It can be a bit confusing, given there are exceptions to the rule.  For example, the use of voice-operated technology is authorized.

Plaintiff’s lawyers and prosecutors alike understand the process of reading texts is itself dangerous, whether or not responding to texts and messaging is accomplished by saying “Hey Siri” and using voice-activated APPS.

“Reading” texts and emails is prohibited under the NC texting laws.

The North Carolina offense, in relevant part, sets forth:

  1. It is illegal for anyone to operate a vehicle including cars trucks motorcycles, etc., on highways, public streets, and or public vehicular areas while using a mobile telephone
    1. To enter multiple letters manually on the phone or text on the telephone as it means of communication OR
    2. Read any electronic mail or text message on such devices

There are exceptions to N.C.G.S. Chapter 20-137.4A(a)

If “parked,” texting and other “entry of multiple letters manually” is authorized.

Under the NC DWI Laws, operation of a motor vehicle may include parked vehicles, vehicles with the engine running, and possibly even with the engine turned off but with keys in the ignition.

What Happens to Your License After a DWI Arrest

Law Enforcement, Ambulance Drivers (both public and privately-owned EMS), and members of the fire department, if engaged in their official duties, are excluded from the texting while driving law in NC.

GPS systems, whether installed at the factory or purchased after-market are authorized and not subject to the prohibitions set forth in NCGS 20-137.4A, as are “wireless communications devices” that are used to receive and transmit datum from dispatch systems.

And most importantly, “voice-operated technology” is authorized and is not otherwise considered a violation of the NC distracted driving law.

What is Reasonable Suspicion for texting while driving?

In a published decision entitled State v. Dalton (North Carolina v. Tevin O’Brian Dalton) N.C. Court of Appeals No. COA20-248, the Court addresses reasonable suspicion relative to texting-while-driving.

I think it’s fair to say the opinion is subject to some level of consternation by legal scholars familiar with the NC traffic laws and the standards of proof at issue – Bill Powers, Charlotte DWI Lawyer

In ruling on whether the law enforcement officer in the matter had reasonable suspicion to stop, the Court anticipates reasonable criticisms of the opinion writing:

We are cognizant that our holding may appear to create a rather perverse result.

In criminal defense circles, that is a bit of an understatement.

The Court’s ruling is a published opinion that attempts to avoid much if any precedential value, further stating,

Our holding here should not be viewed as establishing a test sufficient to meet the reasonable suspicion tests in other ‘texting-while-driving’ cases.    

The Guidebook to Navigating the DWI DUI Legal System

The Court adds, its ruling is, “strictly limited to the facts of this case.”

Unfortunately, the opinion of the police officer relative to the basis of the stop of the vehicle in State v. Dalton may be inferred as somewhat subjective in nature.

The legal standard for both Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause in North Carolina is objective, what other reasonable law enforcement officers would do in similar circumstances.

In State v. Dalton, the officer opines the use of the cell phone and associated driving was consistent with texting and not consistent with the use of a GPS application.

That is inferred by constant viewing of the screen as opposed to “putting the phone down” and continuing to drive before reaching an intersection.

Can you give police the Middle Finger?

Clearly, reasonable minds may differ, particularly in areas with multiple intersections, lack of road signs, lighting, and at times of the day when it is dark.

Individuals may use devices in different forms and fashions, especially if lost or concerned about their individual safety if lost.

Assuming texting by seeing only a constant “glow” of the cell phone in the “center” of passenger cabin might be considered nothing more than a hunch.

Charlotte Criminal Defense Attorney

Your case matters.

The consequences of violating a minor traffic law, whether technically an infraction vs a misdemeanor criminal charge, can be substantial, particularly when given as the basis of the stop and later investigation of DUI / DWI offense.

Given the ubiquity of mobile devices, State v Dalton is an interesting, if not troubling opinion.  One would be remiss in failing to acknowledge its potential impact to DWI charges in North Carolina – Bill Powers, Charlotte DWI Defense Attorney

The NC Criminal Laws, including Chapter 20 “motor vehicle” offenses are intricate and at times, subject to some level of interpretation.

Call NC Criminal Defense Attorney Bill Powers now to schedule a consultation:  704-342-4357.

You may also reach Bill Powers by email:

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