A Michigan judge gave an unusual sentence Thursday to a 23-year-old woman convicted of killing a bicyclist because she was distracted by her cellphone: He barred her from owning or even using a mobile phone or any other portable electronic device for two years.
"I don't think she has a right to have a cellphone. I think it's a privilege," Judge Stewart McDonald said at the sentencing of Mitzi Nelson, who will also spend at least 90 days in jail, serve two years' probation and pay more than $15,000 in restitution.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, McDonald acknowledged that the cellphone portion of the sentence could be challenged in a higher court, but said he hoped it would deter others from doing the same.
"This sentencing is about a message of deterrence to others, that there is a price to pay if you're negligent and it cost the life of another person," McDonald said. "This was a tragic case, all the way around ... and it could have been prevented."
Nelson was distracted by her ringing phone last fall when she struck and killed 35-year-old Jill Byelich, who was riding her bike near DeWitt, Mich. Nelson pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of a moving violation causing death. (Michigan law bars texting and driving, but, unlike California, does not have a blanket ban on all handheld phone use while driving.) Byelich worked as a grant writer for the Michigan State Police and was the mother of two young boys.
Byelich's husband, Jordan Byelich, was actually the one who suggested the cellphone ban. McDonald called it a "novel request," and said it was the first time he had added such a stipulation to a sentence for a distracted driving offense.
"In this fast-paced world, we've become so dependent on [cellphones] that it's almost an extension of oneself," McDonald said. "There's a penalty attached to this; for the next two years, she's going to have to learn what life is like without being constantly dependent on a cellphone."
Nelson, a college student, can still have a laptop or tablet for school work, McDonald said, but is forbidden from connecting them to phone service.
Jordan Byelich hugged Nelson in court before she was taken to jail.
Judges routinely hand out onerous, and hard-to-enforce, probation conditions, such as revoking driving privileges, ordering someone to stay 1,000 feet away from a location, or installing breathalyzer devices in DUI offenders' cars to prevent them from starting the ignition while intoxicated. But a cellphone ban is unusual.
Dr. Linda Hill, a professor at the UC San Diego School of Medicine who has researched injury prevention and distracted driving, says she's never heard of such a judgment, but it could be a "creative" way to stymie the hard-to-break habit of driving while using a phone, which contributes to an estimated one in four car accidents, according to the National Safety Council.
"It's like smoking. Every time someone gets a ding and answers that text, it's such a basic, positive reinforcement," Hill said. "You have to remove temptation away from that person."
Such bans could help deter offenders, Hill said. She and her colleagues published published a study of college students and middle-aged adults in San Diego County in which many subjects said the legal and financial penalties associated with a cellphone ticket were too low to stop them from doing it.
"The strategies we're using now aren't working," Hill said. "What we need is a sea change in attitude." While such a shift eventually occurred to deal with second-hand cigarette smoke, Hill said, such gains have yet to be made in the campaign against distracted driving.
The judge's sentence, while creative, is also somewhat "draconian" and may not hold up if challenged, said Andrea Roth, a UC Berkeley law school professor who specializes in criminal law and procedure.
It could create a serious hardship for a parent or caretaker, or for someone who doesn't have a landline phone or whose employer requires she have a cellphone. Sentencing conditions have to be "reasonably related" to the crime or to preventing future occurrences, Roth said.
"If there is a sense that this is a chronic problem, a habit, then taking away the phone is much more tightly linked to the problem," Roth said. "There would have to be some showing that … she would do the same thing again."
According to McDonald, Nelson told police that she had gotten in the habit of placing her cellphone in her lap while driving, which he thought contributed to her distraction.
There are other creative ways to up the ante on consequences of distracted driving cases, Roth said, including more jail time and higher fines, public shaming and forcing people to witness autopsies. And there are phone apps that can block incoming texts and calls when cars are traveling over a certain speed.
Judge McDonald said he recognized the difficulties surrounding his sentence: "I'm not naive, I understand it's going to be hard to enforce and hard to supervise," McDonald said, but added that news in DeWitt, a small community five miles north of the capital of Lansing, travels fast. "This is Smalltown, U.S.A.," McDonald told The Times. "People are going to know."
For Nelson's part, her attorney, Mike Nichols, says he doesn't expect to challenge the judge's order: "Mitzi may be just fine with that," he told the Lansing State Journal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.