Thursday, June 16, 2011

Allentown Cell Phone Ban Ruled Invalid by Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas

I am referencing a criminal court decision for the first time on Tort Talk since it could have an impact in automobile accident civil matters in which there are allegations that one of the drivers was using a cell phone at the time of the accident which is the subject of the litigation.

In the Lehigh County case of Commonwealth v. Steiner, PICS Case No. 11-1052 (Lehigh Co. May 4, 2011, Anthony, J.), Judge James T. Anthony ruled that an Allentown City ordinance prohibiting the use of a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle was invalid because the Pennsylvania Legislature intended that motor vehicle regulations be uniform throughout the state and this ordinance would subject motorists to unreasonable inconsistencies contrary to the purpose of the Vehicle Code. Defendant's motion to dismiss granted.

In this criminal matter, the defendant was charged with violating the ordinance for using a mobile phone while operating his vehicle. Defendant was found guilty and filed a summary appeal. Following the summary appeal hearing, defendant filed a motion to dismiss alleging that the ordinance was preempted by the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code.

After reviewing the law of preemption, Judge Anthony ruled that the Legislature intended that motor vehicle regulation be uniform throughout the state and that local municipalities need express authorization to enact any ordinances on matter covered by the Vehicle Code. Thus, for the ordinance at issue to be valid, there must be specific authorization in the Vehicle Code permitting the City of Allentown to enact such an ordinance.

The court noted that Section 6109 of the Vehicle Code provides that its provisions shall not be deemed to prevent local authorities from the reasonable exercise of their police powers. The section then follows with 23 specific examples of regulations that are presumed to be reasonable. None of the 23 examples authorized the action taken by the city in enacting the ordinance at issue.

The court also noted that the ordinance did not provide notice to motorists entering into Allentown that cell phone use was forbidden.  Judge Anthony stated that "[a] motorist could be utilizing a cell phone while driving in a municipality without a ban and, moments later, be unaware that he was violating the ordinance."

The court found that exposing drivers to such an inconsistency could not be considered reasonable and was contrary to the intended purpose of the Motor Vehicle Code. As such, the court found Ordinance 14782 invalid and defendant's motion to dismiss was granted.

As such, in civil matters in which there is an allegation of negligence on the part of any driver involved based upon that driver's alleged use of a cell phone at the time of an accident in violation of a local ordinance, or a claim for punitive damages based upon such facts, this case of Commonwealth v. Steiner may serve to defeat such allegations.

Anyone desiring a copy of any of the above cases may contact the Pennsylvania Law Weekly Instant Case Service at 1-800-276-7427 and provide the PICS Case Number noted and pay a small fee.

Source:  Case Digests in June 14, 2011 Pennsylvania Law Weekly

Anyone desiring a copy of this case may contact me at

Click here to view my other posts on the issue of cell phone use in auto accident matters:

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