DENVER – “Texting while driving is dangerous behavior, stop it.”
State Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver, said that is the message a new law cracking down on distracted driving was intended to deliver.
But somewhere along the way, the message got muddied because of a provision requiring increased justification for citations.
Colorado law formerly said that people caught texting while driving were subject to a $50 fine and 1 point off of their driver’s license. The fine would increase to $100 on subsequent offenses.
Coloradans younger than 18 still face those penalties, but the implementation of Senate Bill 27, on June 1, has changed the penalty for older drivers.
Under the new law, adults will be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor traffic offense and fined $300, but only if they are driving “in a careless and imprudent manner” as a result of texting. The punishment is bumped up to a Class 1 misdemeanor traffic offense if texting leads to bodily injury or death.
A law enforcement officer must observe a driver typing a text and driving carelessly, according to the new law.
In both cases, offenders could lose 4 points from their driver’s license.
The increased burden of proof in theory means that Uber drivers who are parked with cars running can legally text to let passengers know they are waiting outside, or people stuck in rush hour traffic can text to inform their spouses they will be late.
But there is plenty of ambiguity in the law’s wording.
That led to a host of articles across the state this week, hinting that lawmakers made it legal to text while cruising around town, or at least made it more likely that Coloradans can get away with it, which Court says isn’t true.
However, there is some merit to the thought that citations will be thrown out of court, said Marshall Sumrall, a Durango-based traffic offense attorney.
“It is interesting and I agree it makes it more difficult for prosecutors to get a conviction on this case,” he said.
Court agrees that cases may be thrown out.
“When people say, ‘this is going to get decided in court,’ well yeah, that’s why we have a judicial branch,” she said.
Sumrall added that the increased burden of wrongdoing is justified, as misdemeanor traffic offenses carry the possibility of jail time.
For a Class 2 offense, judges have the option of sentencing offenders to 10 to 90 days in jail, and Class 1 punishments range from 10 days to a full year.
“Because of the stiffer penalty, I absolutely agree that the Legislature did the right thing in adding this additional element,” Sumrall said.
Court said putting offenders in jail was not the intention of the bill but is at the discretion of the courts.
“Is it possible that a judge, at some point, might think that a behavior is so egregious that jail time would be appropriate? Of course that’s a possibility,” she said.
Sumrall said he has yet to go to court to contest a texting-while-driving citation, but the stiffer penalty might change that.
“With the change in the law, I may start seeing new clients for this sort of case,” he said. “I think before, when it was $50 on the first offense and $100 on the second, well people just paid that and that’s why I didn’t see those cases.”
Because the law is fresh on the books – in fact the Colorado Revised Statutes online have not been updated to reflect it – its effect on citations and court appearances is unknown. But lawmakers hope it will cut down on the 3,477 deaths and 391,000 injuries from distracted driving, which includes texting while driving, that were reported in 2015 in the U.S.
“Our intent is deterrence,” Court said. “I don’t care if there’s never a ticket written. I care if people realize that this is an extremely dangerous behavior.”