Checking your ringing phone while driving to see who's calling didn't violate 2021 MN law: Court

The Minnesota Court of Appeals says checking your ringing phone while driving to see who is calling does not violate the state's hands-free law. 

The opinion, released on Monday, was in connection to a semi-truck driver, Roger Gutzke, who rolled his rig and spilled a load of soybeans while checking his phone to see an incoming spam call. 

The crash happened in Oct. 8, 2021, when Gutzke was driving from his home in Glencoe to trade his beans at the United Farmers Cooperative in Brownton. The distraction of looking at his phone to see who was calling was enough for Gutzke to veer off the roadway, tip his truck over in the ditch and spill the beans. After the crash, firefighters had to help Gutzke out of the toppled cab of his truck, court documents state. 

He was charged with driving with a suspended license and operating a motor vehicle while using a cellular device. Gutzke argued glancing at his phone is not prohibited by Minnesota's hands-free law, to which the Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed. The court reversed Gutzke's conviction for operating a motor vehicle while using a cellular device. 

The court said, "The trial evidence established that Gutzke picked up his cellphone to identify who was calling him and that, in doing so, he saw that it was a spam caller. We can assume that this information might otherwise fit the catch-all category of the ‘electronic message’ definition in that it is arguably ‘other data transmitted using a commonly recognized electronic communications protocol.’ But it cannot constitute an electronic message if it is also ‘data transmitted automatically without direct initiation by a person.’ And it is this exclusion that prevents Gutzke’s conviction …"

"Gutzke was acting only to determine whether to engage in the call. Although his actions distracted him and, in fact, resulted in a consequence the legislature clearly sought to avoid by penalizing cellphone use while driving, his conduct is not prohibited by the version of the statute in effect at the time of the collision," the court's ruling said. 

The court noted that since the incident, the Minnesota Legislature passed an amendment to the law. "The subdivision now prohibits a motorist from even ‘holding a wireless communications device with one or both hands’ while operating a motor vehicle."

Gutzke also challenged his consequent convictions of driving with a suspended license, which was suspended in August 2021 for failing to pay a fine for speeding. He contended the legislature’s 2021 amendment to the driver’s-license-suspension statute applies to his case and that the amelioration doctrine mandates his driving-while-suspended conviction be vacated. The appeals court said, "Because the legislature’s 2021 amendment to the license-suspension statute did not decriminalize driving with a suspended license, Gutzke’s amelioration argument fails."