SANTA FE >> Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez told a Senate committee Monday that he expects the full Senate to vote this year on a bill banning texting and driving and predicted it would pass the Legislature.
Last year Sanchez, D-Belen, blocked the Senate from voting on a similar bill. And on Monday, he cast the sole vote against Senate Bill 19, which cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee by 7-1 vote. He told a reporter after the vote that he still has several problems with the bill, but said, "I suspect it'll probably be heard on the Senate floor." Sanchez, as majority leader, makes that decision.
If it does get heard, that would be a big change from last year's 60-day session. Then a similar bill, also sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, cleared all Senate committees but languished on the Senate calendar for about four weeks without a hearing. That bill died when the 2013 session came to an end. Sanchez made no bones last year about holding up what he saw as a bad bill.
Wirth said Monday the bill should be on the Senate calendar by Wednesday, though he couldn't say whether it would be heard then. "I'm optimistic it will get a floor vote," Wirth said following the committee's action. "The prevalence of texting and driving is ever increasing. We need to stop the practice."
The bill would allow police to ticket drivers they see typing on cellphones or reading messages while driving or stopped in traffic. Violators would face a $25 fine for a first offense and a $50 fine for subsequent tickets. Using hands-free, voice-activated devices would be legal. Also, it wouldn't be a crime to pull over and park to send or read texts or emails.
On Monday, the Judiciary Committee amended the bill to prohibit police from confiscating phones and reading messages from suspected texting offenders. Sanchez and others have said that seizing phones that contain messages to and from lawyers would violate attorney/client privilege.
During the committee's discussion, Sanchez said he's afraid that even though the current bill only would make texting and driving a misdemeanor, one day it will become a felony. "There will probably be some serious accident and someone will say the penalty isn't high enough," he argued.
When another committee member said officers will have to make some "judgment calls," Sanchez said, "Certain ethnic groups get more judgment than others. Young people get more judgment than others. ... It's a slippery slope."
Wirth said he appreciates Sanchez's objections to the bill. "Nobody wants to see anyone go to prison for texting and driving," he said.
Despite the fact that the proposed fines in his bill are low, Wirth said it should serve as a deterrent against texting while driving. "I liken it to the seat-belt law," he said, which also has a $25 fine. "This will save lives."
Currently in the state, only drivers with learners permits and intermediate licenses are prohibited from texting and driving. According to the website of the National Conference of State Legislators, 41 states other have laws against texting and driving.