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Assemb. bill would let cops seize cell phones after crash

ALBANY - Police officers would be able to check the cellphones of drivers in car crashes to see if they were talking or texting while operating the car, under a measure proposed in Albany.

The proposal is by Assemb. Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn), who crafted New York’s laws banning cellphone calls and texting while driving. Ortiz says the new measure is needed in part because of new technology that can detect cellphones being used in a passing car.

He said police can use the developing technology as a tip, but then must be able to see the driver’s cellphone before any information about the time of calls can be erased.

Ortiz said the measure wouldn’t be an invasion of privacy despite a 2014 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that police can’t routinely examine cellphones, because they are powerful computers loaded with personal information. The court rejected the argument that cellphone data could be erased if not seized immediately.

Ortiz, however, said a carefully crafted law specific to police seizing cellphones could withstand another court challenge.

“What’s the difference if police take someone out of a car for a breathalyzer? Isn’t that an invasion of privacy?” Ortiz told Newsday.

He refers to the power of police to ask a driver suspected of drunken driving to take a test of their breath for alcohol. A driver can refuse, but could then be arrested.

His proposal follows a 2011 crash in which a 19-year-old passenger was killed. A lawsuit by the family of the passenger sued and found evidence of cellphone use by the driver, but the driver was never charged.

“This is about public safety, quality of life, and we have to make sure the distracted driver is not on the road,” Ortiz said.

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