When can drivers take a cellphone photo?

CrimeBeat Q&A is a weekly feature where police reporter Julie Johnson answers readers’ questions about local crimes and the law.

What are the rules governing taking cellphone photos or video when behind the wheel of a car? For example, if I am stopped at a traffic light, can I shoot a photo or video of a car crash legally? Can I be ticketed?

- Eric Wittmershaus, Press Democrat editor

California law bars using a cellphone for communication - texting or talking - while driving, but the law allows drivers to use cellphones in other ways.

You can take a picture, check a map or search the Internet with a cellphone while driving, just as a driver can eat a hamburger, put on makeup or fiddle with the radio dial, Superior Court Judge Larry Ornell said.

That is, until you can’t.

Ornell, who previously presided over traffic court, said a driver’s actions become unlawful when it distracts the driver and leads to unsafe behavior.

“If you’re not looking at the road, then you’re most likely traveling at an unsafe speed,” Ornell said. “People who sit at the green light and make others honk their horns are interfering with the flow of traffic and breaking the law.”

And any of the above actions - the hamburger or the phone or the makeup - can cause a driver to unsafely move, delay or stop and earn a driver a traffic ticket or cause the motorist to crash.

California law banning cellphone use among drivers was reinterpreted in 2014 to allow drivers to use GPS maps on smartphones after a Fresno man took his case all the way to California’s 5th District Court of Appeal and won. He got a ticket when a motorcycle officer saw him checking a map while in standstill traffic. He challenged the ticket in court and eventually won, forcing traffic officers across the state to change some strategies for policing unsafe driving.

Ornell cautioned drivers to be smart about how they use a cellphone, warning that even if a behavior isn’t illegal, it still may not be safe. The judge said he doesn’t use a cellphone while driving but does use his vehicles hands-free navigation system.

Driving is “the most dangerous thing we do and most of us take it for granted,” that we’ll arrive at our destinations, Ornell said.

Submit your questions about crime, safety and criminal justice to Staff Writer Julie Johnson at On Twitter @jjpressdem.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette