Brandon Michael Wilson was adamant that he was wrongly stopped by a Carver County sheriff’s deputy in August and given a ticket for violating the state’s hands-free cellphone law.
“I was not on the phone,” he said. “I was not going to plead guilty to something I didn’t do.”
Wilson, 45, of Burnsville, contested the citation in court and prevailed. But his case isn’t the norm. So far, three-quarters of the more than 9,700 drivers cited in the first five months the law was in effect have had their tickets and fines upheld, according to data from the State Court Administrator’s Office.
Only 178 drivers — fewer than 2% — had their tickets dismissed between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31, court records show. Most of the others cited are still working through the system or had the tickets continued for dismissal, meaning the citations will be dropped if the driver doesn’t have any further infractions within a set amount of time.
Attorney Jay Rolloff said the conviction rate isn’t a surprise because the state law clarified the rules governing phone use and made it harder for drivers to fight the tickets.
“In the past, if an officer could not verify that the person was talking on their phone or manipulating it or doing something to the phone, that made the job of the prosecutor more difficult,” said Rolloff, who said he has represented hundreds of motorists ticketed for distracted driving over the years. “Now, if law enforcement sees somebody holding a phone in their hand, even if it is to do nothing, it is an easier case for the government to prove.”
Under state law, drivers are not allowed to have a cellphone or other electronic device in their hand while at the wheel. Drivers can touch their phone once to make a call, send voice-activated text messages or listen to podcasts. But multiple touches, such as dialing a phone number or punching in GPS coordinates, are outlawed. Video streaming, gaming and using apps for anything other than navigation are also against the law. Teenagers cannot use their phones — even hands-free — when driving.
Tickets come with a fine of $50 for the first offense and $275 for each subsequent violation. Court costs can push the total higher.
Prosecutor Joe Van Thomme said some drivers contesting their tickets don’t fully understand the law. They argue that they were only using GPS or point out that they were not texting while driving.
But the law isn’t just about texting — and many drivers are caught doing other things on their phones.
More than 2,100 were ticketed for activities such as watching videos, playing games or using other software applications, court data shows.
Prosecutors still have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a driver violated the statute, he said, but it’s easier now that the law is clearer.
“If you are using your phone and it is in your hand, it doesn’t matter what you were doing,” said Van Thomme, an attorney with Eckberg Lammers, a Twin Cities law firm that prosecutes traffic cases for 16 metro cities.
Lt. Gordon Shank of the Minnesota State Patrol said troopers are given extensive training on how to document behaviors they see when giving citations. They can use dashcam video and speak into a microphone they wear when interacting with drivers to gather supplemental evidence.
“We want 100 percent proof” in gaining a conviction, he said. “But what we really want is a change in behavior.”
Distracted driving contributed to more than 60,000 crashes and an average 45 deaths a year in Minnesota between 2014 and 2018, according to data from handsfreemn.org.
Lisa Kons of the Minnesota Safety Council said she is pleased that law enforcement is enforcing the law. In a perfect world, police would not have to write tickets to drivers holding their phones, she said, but the number of tickets indicates “the law is doing what it is supposed to be doing.”
Matt Norton, 48, of Monticello, challenged the citation he got Nov. 12 for talking on a hand-held phone while driving in Otsego. He spoke with a Wright County hearing officer who upheld the ticket but reduced the total fine to $90.
“Not the best outcome,” Norton said. “I learned a lesson. Don’t be on the phone.”