Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis
California Journal

Yes, you can check your cellphone while driving -- but is it worth it?

A motorist wrongly ticketed for checking his smartphone's GPS finds the road to justice long and costly

Last September, Andreas Sundquist was on his way to San Francisco International Airport to pick up his girlfriend when traffic on Highway 101 near Redwood City suddenly came to a stop. Fearing he'd be late, he picked up his smartphone to check the GPS map. Was it road work? Had there been a fender bender? Or something worse?

A CHP officer who saw Sundquist, 35, look at his phone pulled him over and gave him a $162 ticket for violating Section 23123 (a) of the California Vehicle Code, which prohibits using a cellphone while driving. Sundquist was confused. He thought he had read that it was OK to look at a GPS map while behind the wheel.

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FOR THE RECORD:

California Journal: A column in the Jan. 31 California section about checking cellphone maps while driving misidentified California's 5th District Court of Appeal as the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
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"But since this person in authority was giving me a ticket," he said, "I was like, whoops, I guess I messed up."

Except he hadn't. And it didn't take him long to find proof he'd been ticketed erroneously. Sundquist, a Palo Alto biotech entrepreneur, decided to fight. Two months later, his verdict arrived in the mail.

Before I tell you what it was, though, let me tell you about Steven Spriggs, the soft-spoken but stubborn Fresno State development officer whose legal saga inspired Sundquist's challenge.

On Jan. 5, 2012, Spriggs was driving his Toyota Highlander on Highway 41 through downtown Fresno when road construction brought traffic to a standstill. Spriggs, 60, whose vehicle wasn't moving, checked his iPhone to see if there was a way around the jam. Even the CHP motorcycle officer in the next lane who saw the glow of Spriggs' phone had his foot on the road. Still, the officer pulled him over and ticketed him for using his cellphone.

What Spriggs did next made him a folk hero to all traffic-beleaguered drivers who count on Waze or Google Maps to help them get to Point B without tearing their hair out: He fought his ticket. And lost.

Then he appealed his case. And lost again.

Undaunted (except by the prospect of spending a lot of money on attorney's fees), he decided to keep fighting. Fortunately, he found Scott Reddie, a Fresno appellate attorney, who took the case for free. Reddie filed an appeal with California's 5th District Court of Appeal.

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FOR THE RECORD

Jan. 30, 2:30: An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified the 5th District Court of Appeal as the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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This time, Spriggs won.

He claimed that the law he allegedly violated, Section 23123 (a), did not apply to his situation. Passed by the Legislature in 2006, the statute prohibits drivers from "using a wireless telephone" for "talking and listening" unless the phone is configured for hands-free use. (Texting was banned in 2009.)

In court, Reddie successfully argued that Spriggs was not using his phone as defined by the law.

"We conclude that the statute means what it says," wrote the court. "It prohibits a driver only from holding a wireless telephone while conversing on it."

Which brings us back to Sundquist.

In January, after submitting a written declaration of his innocence to the court, plus phone and texting logs, maps with his GPS coordinates, and a copy of the Spriggs decision, he was found guilty.

"I was very disappointed," Sundquist said. "My instinct was to fight this. On the other hand, do I want to spend hours more of my life and have this hang over me? But how many other people are out there being bulldozed by the courts?"

More than a handful, judging by email that Reddie and Spriggs receive on a regular basis. Reddie is at a loss to explain why officers and courts aren't up on the law.

"It's a published opinion by a California court of appeal," he said. "It's binding in all of California."

So what gives? I asked CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader. She said she'd just seen a new training video for peace officers that addressed the appeals court decision, so word is getting out. "We're educating our officers," she said. "There's a lot of them out there."

I also checked in with California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris' office, which had opted not to take the Spriggs case to the California Supreme Court after losing in the appeals court. Her spokeswoman, Kristin Ford, told me that the attorney general's legal sourcebook, provided as guidance to peace officers, is up to date and reflects the Spriggs decision.

Sundquist could appeal his conviction to San Mateo County Superior Court's appellate division and hope the judges see things his way. If they don't, Reddie said, he could then hire an appellate lawyer and budget between $30,000 and $50,000 for attorney's fees, which seems a little over the top for a $162 ticket.

"I have decided it's not worth the time or money to go to court," Sundquist said.

Spriggs eventually got his $165 fine back (the amounts vary slightly by county) and took his wife out for dinner. Even though he won his case, he's not comfortable using his smartphone map in the car anymore. "My favorite app these days," he told me, "is a AAA paper map. I pull over to look at it."

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Twitter: @robinabcarian

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