City Council attorney says MPD can fine drivers for state’s hands-free law without new city ordinance

Updated: Sep. 17, 2019 at 3:47 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Since July 1, it’s been illegal in the state of Tennessee to touch or hold your phone while driving. But the Memphis Police Department hasn’t fined anyone because they say there isn’t a city ordinance on the books that allows them to write the ticket.

On Tuesday, it appeared council members would move toward approval of an ordinance to give police that authority, but lingering questions slowed down that process.

“I think there is authority. It depends on how you interpret all the various statutes,” said Allan Wade, Memphis City Council attorney.

Wade told council members and MPD leadership he doesn’t think there needs to be a new ordinance on the books for the city’s police department to enforce the state’s hands-free law. But he said the council was willing to sign off on one for clarity’s sake.

In the meantime, Wade said he believes officers could be out writing tickets.

“I think there needs to be some upper level discussion on how we can start doing this while we work out the details,” Wade said.

The state law banning the touching of phones while driving has been in effect for two and a half months. MPD brass said they have told officers to stop drivers and give verbal or written warnings, but because they write traffic citations based on city ordinances they do not have a city ordinance for which to write a ticket.

Wade said the tickets could be heard in municipal court because the fine is $50, but for repeat offenses the ticket would have to be transferred to general sessions court. That’s because municipal courts statewide are limited to $50 fines, further complicating the issue.

A draft ordinance was presented Tuesday, but nobody from the city attorney’s office was there to talk about it. The discussion was put on hold to resume when the council meets again in two weeks.

“Hopefully we have all parties in place, so that we will have a better understanding and more details regarding it,” said City Councilor Jamita Swearengen.

Since this is an ordinance, it will have to be heard and passed three times by the council, meaning the whole process will take six weeks at a minimum.

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