New York drivers might get mandatory 'textalyzer' phone scans

textalyzer
A New York bill would require drivers to hand over their phones to police after a crash so they can check if they had been texting while driving.

Some New York state lawmakers, seeking to curb texting while driving, want to force drivers to hand over their phones to police officers after a car crash.

The goal of the bill is to give police a device that plugs into a phone and scans logs to see if a driver was texting or calling during the crash. And if drivers refuse to hand over their phones, they would lose their driver's license, under the proposed bill -- just as suspected drunk drivers are required to submit to breathalyzers.

The bill is called "Evan's Law" after Evan Lieberman, who died at 19 years old from injuries he suffered during a head-on car crash with another teenager in 2011. State police didn't charge the other driver, Michael A. Fiddle, with a crime. But Evan's father, Ben Lieberman, sued Fiddle and discovered that Fiddle had been using his phone at some point during the drive that morning.

Evan's father launched a campaign against people who text while they drive. As a result, in 2013 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law tougher penalties for distracted drivers and ordered state police to conduct more checkpoints on roads.

If Evan's Law is signed by Cuomo, it could be lucrative for Cellebrite. The company, which has a U.S. office in Parsippany, New Jersey, is one of the few providers with extensive experience helping law enforcement search cell phones.

Cellebrite already makes a handheld device, used by the FBI, that can be plugged into a suspect's phone to siphon out data.

On Thursday, a company representative told CNNMoney that Cellebrite supports the legislation. In a statement, Cellebrite marketing executive Jeremy Nazarian said the device could be designed to check phone logs -- a record of metadata that would show a text message was sent, but not the actual contents of that message.

"Evan's Law" was approved 16-to-2 by the New York Senate's transportation committee last month. It has yet to be voted on by the entire legislature.

But it's already clear the law will be challenged in court by privacy advocates.

After all, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2014 that police need a warrant to search cell phones.

"We seriously doubt that this bill is constitutional," said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "A law that essentially requires you to hand over your phone to a cop in a roadside situation without a warrant is a non-starter."

Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called the bill "excessive, unnecessary, and invasive."

Some question whether such a device is necessary. Cell phone carriers already store logs of all text messages and phone calls. Police routinely subpoena companies like AT&T (T, Tech30)and Verizon (VZ, Tech30) to get phone records that show whether a person was texting the minute a crash occurred.

New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman noted that "textalyzers" are very different from breathalyzers.

"This is not a case where the evidence is about to disappear, or where the physical condition of the individual is going to change with every minute that passes," she said.

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