Trucker Asks: Are Police Above The Law?
It has been just over half a year since Illinois made it illegal to talk on your phone while driving without the use of a hands-free device. There are some exceptions: you can hold your phone if your car is stopped -- say at a railroad crossing for a freight train -- and in park or neutral, or if you pull off onto the shoulder. The law also makes an exemption for law enforcement. A recent YouTube sensation that raises the question: should police get special treatment?
When a video goes viral on the Internet, you know it's touched a nerve. So far, a clip posted last month on YouTube by Brian Miner, a 35-year-old truck driver from Mattoon, is edging toward 5 million views. Not to mention those who watched it when it got picked up by Good Morning America:
ANCHOR 1: "What could be the best story of the morning: the trucker who gets pulled over the police officer but doesn't take it!"
ANCHOR 2: "Yeah."
ANCHOR 1: "He's speaking out this morning on GMA."
ANCHOR 3: "Turns the tables."
REPORTER: "You know what? He turned the law around. The driver says the trooper was driving recklessly, so the driver decided he's going to lay down the law for the trooper, capturing the whole exchange on camera."
Miner says he was driving on I-57, between Champaign and Pesotum, on a rainy day in June, when he noticed an officer he says was speeding and talking on his cell phone -- with the phone up to his ear. And it bothered him. So he honked.
"Just a ... like a beep, beep," Miner says.
Mind you, none of that was caught on camera.
Miner did record his interaction with the trooper once he'd been pulled over for honking. It's posted on YouTube with the title "Cop lies his ass off."
In the video, the trooper walks up to the passenger side of Miner's cab, and introduces himself:
"Trooper (unidentifiable) with the Illinois State Police. I pulled you over cause of the horn, I don't know what that was about."
Miner tells him: " 'Cause you were speeding, and you had your cell phone in your hand."
To which the trooper responds: "Police officers can actually use technology when they're driving. We're exempt."
Illinois law makes an exemption to the hands-free cell phone ban, for law enforcement and emergency vehicle operators, while performing "official duties."
The sponsor of the law, Democratic Rep. John D'Amico, of Chicago, stands by that -- even after having watched Miner's video.
"You don't know if the police officer could be talking to their superiors, or on their way to another scene; maybe they're going somewhere undercover without their lights on," D'Amico says.
"That's why the laws have been written this way, it allows police officers to do their job, but yet they have to do it in a manner that's safe for other people," says Limey Nargelenas, a former state police director. He now lobbies for the state police chiefs' association.
Nargelenas says there are legitimate reasons for police to be on the phone.
The key, he says, is that it has to be in the line of duty, "not just because a police officer wants to run up and down the highway above the speed limit."
He says then, an officer should be disciplined. Take the case of Matt Mitchell, who was fired from the Illinois State Police for causing a 2007 crash that killed two teenage sisters from Collinsville. He reportedly had been traveling at greater than 120 miles an hour on his way to a different accident -- one in which nobody had been injured -- while talking on the phone to his girlfriend. He crossed the median and smashed into the sisters' car.
Even when it's legitimate, Nargelenas admits: police can have a lot going on while they drive. He says the state police do a lot of training in preparation for that.
"How do you pursue someone and talk on the radio at the same time? So you've got one hand on the microphone and one hand on the steering wheel while you're traveling 110 mph," Nargelenas says. "Those are things that you need to practice and learn."
Still, Nargelenas says hands free would be best. But he says it's too expensive to be required by law for all departments.
Some departments have that ability: a donation this summer equipped Sangamon County sheriff's deputies' cars.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police says it has a strict policy on wireless communications, but those appear to require agency-approved hands-free devices for "data communications" like texting and emailing.
She says the trooper who was filmed by Brian Miner "was not on his cell phone," and "provided plausible law enforcement reasoning" for his responses to the trucker.
On Miner's video clip, the trooper is seen returning from his patrol car, where he explains that he ran a check on Miner; he says given that Miner recently was written up for having a light out, he's not going to further sully his driving record with a citation for illegal honking.
"You were just trying, you know, help me out, help me drive safely. I understand that. So ..." the trooper says.
Miner interjects: "We're all out here sharing the same road. You should be held accountable to the same standards as I am."
"Absolutely," the trooper says.
The clip ends with Miner sounding satisfied, saying, "and that's what happens when they know you're recording."
But Miner isn't satisfied with where the law stands. In an interview days after his appearance on Good Morning America, Miner said he's glad it caught on because someone needs to keep law enforcement accountable -- and he doesn't believe police will do it themselves. He says from his perch in a truck cab, he frequently sees police speeding excessively, or on the phone (he says once he saw an officer scrolling through Facebook).
Miner says it's a double standard, when police are supposed to be the ones setting an example. And with Bluetooth technology, he says nobody should be above the law.
It's not just with police, and it's not just with traffic laws. Miner (who acknowledges he's never had much respect for authority) says it feels like it's the same with politicians and public officials, from the president on down.
"It's just, they have less and less rules to live by further up the ladder they go," he says. "And then there's us little citizens down here, that ... everybody else has to make the rules for us. But they don't have to life by 'em."
It's the sort of notion that has evidently resonated; a sentiment, caught on video, that's gone viral.