Cell phone driving fine will go up to $250, but be easier to pay

Cell phone driving fine will go up to $250, but be easier to pay

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A bill on Gov. Neil Abercrombie's desk will bring a hefty increase in the fine for driving while using a cell phone or mobile device but will make it easier to pay the bill.

Last July, a new law took effect that turned driving while using a cell phone or any mobile device from an infraction into a violation.

That meant people cited by police couldn't just write a check and pay a fine. Instead, they had to appear in court, even if they were pleading guilty.

"Nobody really wins in this situation.  And I gotta believe that it was originally somewhat of an oversight by the legislature," said Daniel Kawamoto, a defense attorney who specializes in traffic cases.

Before the law changed last July, six percent of the cell phone cases were dismissed or thrown out by judges.

But after July, when each defendant was forced to show up in court, the dismissal rate more than doubled, to 14 percent.

Kawamoto, the defense attorney who spends many of his days at District Court on Alakea Street dealing with all kinds of traffic cases, offered several reasons why the dismissal rate went way up.

"But when they're forced to come to court, all of a sudden you might decide, 'Oh, I want to fight this now,'" Kawamoto said.

The law also means police officers have to be in court to testify.

"It forces the police officers to be there," Kawamoto said. "If they don't show up, case dismissed. And part of it is the judges see these cases so many times now, I think they've gotten fed up with them as well, so if they're not ready on the first setting, it's out."

What happens if a cop is out sick?

"State would stipulate to a continuance.  State is not ready today.  Officer Katherine Baluso is out sick," said Deputy Prosecutor Tricia Nakamatsu in District Court Friday.

The cell phone case she was prosecuting got delayed because of illness, further clogging an already-busy system.

So the legislature passed a law that raises the fine for using a cell phone while driving to $250 from the previous range of $100 to $200. But the proposal makes it a civil infraction, similar to a parking or speeding ticket that can be paid by mail, avoiding a court appearance.

"I'm sure the prosecutors will be very happy to not have to adjudicate all these cases.  The people will happy that they don't have to take time out of their day to come to court," Kawamoto said.

If Abercrombie signs the bill into law, it will take effect July 1.

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