Drivers suspected of causing serious accidents in Maryland while distracted by a cellphone would be required to give police certain information from that phone under a pair of bills currently filed in Annapolis.
The bills also would make distracted driving resulting in a death or serious injury a misdemeanor in Maryland, punishable by up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
Advocates say the legislation would save lives by deterring distracted driving in an age when cellphone use is increasingly being linked to deadly car accidents, and when many in Maryland support harsher penalties for it.
Civil liberty advocates have raised concerns about the proposed law's constitutionality.
Under the House version of the bill, filed earlier this month by Del. Luke Clippinger, a driver would be required to provide an officer with his or her cellphone number, service provider and any email accounts associated with the phone if the officer has "reasonable grounds" to believe use of the phone contributed to the accident.
Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat, said the bill would give police the information they need to pull phone records and check whether the driver at fault was on the phone or text messaging at the time of the accident.
A hearing on the bill was held before the House judiciary committee on Wednesday, with groups representing police officers and prosecutors testifying in favor of it. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed testimony in opposition.
Toni Holness, a public policy associate and attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said law enforcement and prosecutors already have tools in Maryland to subpoena phone records, and don't need another one.
"The last thing the legislature should be doing is codifying a rule to give law enforcement the authority to set out on a fishing expedition into the information stored on a person's phone, but also in their email accounts," Holness said. "The fundamental privacy rights of everyday Marylanders might be eroded."
Holness said the bill's constitutionality is also "on shaky ground," because the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding two cases in which police access to cellphone information is being considered.
Clippinger said he will review the Supreme Court cases, but is confident any constitutionality issues can be resolved.
He also said prosecutors can only subpoena phone records if they know the phone's number and carrier, but they don't always have that information.
His bill does not give police access to the contents of a driver's phone conversations, text messages or emails, he said, and its requirements would be less than those made of suspected drunken drivers.
"Right now under the law, if you're in an accident that involves death and [police] have a reasonable belief that you are under the influence of alcohol, they can order a blood test," he said. "You could argue a blood test is far more invasive than [the question], 'What's your phone number?'"
A Senate version of the bill was filed last month by Sen. Roger Manno, a Montgomery County Democrat. A version of Manno's bill that appeared on the Maryland General Assembly's website on Wednesday would require drivers to let officers immediately "inspect" their cellphones, but Clippinger said that language goes too far and has or soon will be removed.
Manno did not respond to a request for comment.
A hearing on the Senate bill is scheduled before the judicial proceedings committee on Friday.
Clippinger's bill is informally named after Jake Owen, a 5-year-old South Baltimore resident who was killed in an afternoon car accident in 2011, on lanes leading from northbound Interstate 83 to the inner loop of Interstate 695.
Jake's family has said the prosecution of the man found responsible for the accident would have been easier with evidence from his cell phone. Prosecutors said they believed the driver was distracted by his phone.
Devin Xavier McKeiver, 23, of West Baltimore, was found guilty of negligent driving and failure to control his vehicle's speed, and fined $1,000. He was found not guilty of criminal negligent manslaughter.
Clippinger lives a few blocks from Jake's family in South Baltimore, and said the boy's death shook the neighborhood. He said he has spoken at length with Jake's mother, Susan Yum, about beefing up Maryland's distracted driving laws.
Our desire to be "constantly connected" through our cellphones has created a dangerous situation for drivers, he said.
In support of the legislation, the Change for Jake Foundation, a nonprofit formed in Jake Owen's memory, released on Wednesday the results of a poll of registered Maryland voters by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks, which found a majority favor increased penalties for distracted driving.
The poll of 799 registered voters in Maryland, conducted last month, found 82 percent of respondents felt causing a death or serious injury through distracted driving should carry penalties similar to those for drunken drivers who cause similar accidents.
Seventy-five percent of respondents said they would support a law that established the penalties proposed in Clippinger's bill.
The poll also found 28 percent of respondents said they had used a handheld cellphone to text or call while driving in Maryland in the last six months.
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service