Beaufort County sheriff: Exempt first responders from texting ban

cconley@islandpacket.comAugust 4, 2013 

Sheriff P.J. Tanner

When Beaufort County sheriff's deputies respond to a crime in progress, information about suspects, the location and whether a weapon is involved is displayed on an laptop computer anchored to their cars' consoles.

The deputies, who usually take the initial call over radio, often need to tap a few keys to acknowledge they've received the information.

This process occurs numerous times every day.

That's why Sheriff P.J. Tanner wants a first-responder exemption added to the Town of Hilton Head Island's new texting ban.

Based on language in the current ordinance, he said, officers performing their daily duties by using their "mobile data computers" are violating the law.

Tanner says deputies won't issue tickets for violating the texting ban until Hilton Head changes its law. He also wants a first-responder exemption included in a texting ban being considered by Beaufort County Council.

"This is a brand-new ordinance," Tanner said. "My whole thing is, since this is brand new, let's make sure everyone is within the guidelines of this ordinance. We have to use these laptop computers while responding to calls."

Hilton Head Town Council last month approved a texting ban that bars drivers from writing or reading electronic messages, such as texts or emails, while driving. It allows such communications during emergencies and when the vehicle is parked.

Violations range from $100 for a first offense to $300 for third and subsequent offenses.

The city of Beaufort also has a texting ban, which took effect last fall. It goes further, by prohibiting people under 18 from using a cellphone while driving within city limits. The law includes an exemption for law enforcement.

Tanner said he is concerned that without an explicit exemption in the county and Hilton Head ordinances, some people might think deputies are operating outside the law.

"I don't want people saying, deputies think they are above the laws," he said.

Tanner says deputies are trained to multi-task and also must be certified each year to drive a patrol car. Further, he said, deputies can communicate on the laptop often by pressing a single button.

"Now, is it the best way to do things? Quite frankly, it's the only way to do things right now," he said, adding that deputies face numerous distractions on the job, including transporting a combative prisoner in the back seat of a squad car.

The alternative is to ditch the computers and rely solely on radio, but that's not perfect, either.

"With as much traffic as we have on the radio, if we didn't use other technologies that we have, we wouldn't be able to talk on the radio," Tanner said.

Hilton Head town officials are drafting an ordinance amendment that exempts first responders. The proposal should be introduced to the council next month, staff attorney Brian Hulbert said last week.

Although deputies won't write tickets on Hilton Head for violating the texting ordinance until it's been changed to exempt first responders, Tanner says deputies will issue warnings.

He said in-house training on the new ordinance and how to subpoena phone records, as well as an education campaign aimed at teenagers, has begun.

"I don't have a problem issuing warnings," he said. "I'd just like for it to be clear and for that clarity to be there when we start issuing a uniform traffic violation that costs someone 100 bucks."

Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.

Related content:

Beaufort County committee endorses texting ban, July 30, 2013

Texting ban: First Beaufort, now Hilton Head. Is the county next?, July 12, 2013

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