Recently, two cases involving distracted driving where each of the drivers killed another person have resulted in very different outcomes. This is because one driver was a police officer and the driver was an ordinary citizen. In the first case, a young woman faces jail time for killing another woman because she was surfing Facebook while driving. However, a police officer who killed a bicyclist when he was looking at his in-vehicle computer does not face charges because there is an exemption for emergency responders using work devices. Although each court correctly applied the law as written, the result seems patently unfair. Distracted driving is distracted driving no matter who is at the wheel. Consequently, police officers should be held to the same standards as ordinary citizens and should face the same consequences for using electronic devices while driving.
In the first case, a 20-year old woman was driving from Fargo to Grand Forks, North Dakota at approximately 85 miles per hour. According to a witness, she was surfing Facebook when she rear-ended a woman who was braking to make an illegal U-turn on the highway. The other driver was killed and the young woman has been charged with negligent homicide. Like many states, North Dakota has a law against using mobile electronic devices while driving including cell phone use, texting and reviewing websites such as Facebook.
In the second case, a Los Angeles County Sherriff’s deputy was driving on Mulholland Highway at approximately 45 miles per hour. At a curve of the road, the officer took his eyes off the highway to look at this mobile computer that he used for work. He failed to see a bicyclist who was a well-known entertainment attorney in town. The officer struck and killed the attorney. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office has declined to charge the officer with vehicular manslaughter. This is because he was acting lawfully at the time. Although California has a law prohibiting using mobile electronic devices while driving, there is an exemption for emergency responders using such devices while performing their duties. Consequently, the officer could not be charged.
Although each court was accurately applying the law as stated, the cases highlight a fundamental dichotomy between police officers (and other emergency responders) and ordinary citizens under the law. This dichotomy also exists under Nevada’s anti-texting law. In Nevada, cell phones cannot be used unless they are hands-free and texting/surfing is prohibited. However, there is an exemption for emergency responders using such devices in the course of their duties. Perhaps an argument can be made that police officers need access to their mobile computers while driving. However, police officers should at least be held to a standard of negligence such that if they use their mobile devices in a distracted manner that causes an accident, they should be liable for such accident. Allowing a police officer to go free while a young woman faces a lifetime in jail for the same activity is patently unfair.