California Cell Phone Laws [2023]

At this point, just about everyone who’s old enough to drive also owns a smartphone. That’s great for staying connected and having a way to call for help in an emergency — but there are also downsides, like the way a smartphone can dangerously distract a driver.

In California, using your cell phone while driving isn’t just dangerous — it’s often illegal. And a new law passed in 2020 (that went into effect July 1, 2021) makes the punishments even harsher than they were under previous laws. California cell phone law is now cracking down on this common distraction for drivers, and if you use a cell phone while you’re driving in the Golden State, you put yourself at risk of getting a ticket.

What happens if you do get a cell phone ticket in California? What are the consequences, and can you fight the ticket? Read on for everything you need to know about these and other questions related to California’s cell phone laws.

What is California’s Cell Phone Law?

What is California Cell Phone Law

Cell phone use while driving is covered under 23123.5(a) VC, more commonly called California’s distracted driving law.

The law states, “A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while holding and operating a handheld wireless telephone or an electronic wireless communications device unless the wireless telephone or electronic wireless communications device is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation, and it is used in that manner while driving.”

There are a few other things that the law specifies:

  • It doesn’t apply to hands-free phone systems that are installed inside the vehicle itself.
  • Phones in voice-activated or hands-free modes are OK to use if they’re mounted in the vehicle in a place that doesn’t require the driver to look away from the road, and doesn’t block the driver’s view of the road.
  • Hands-free phones must be activated and deactivated with a single swipe or tap of the driver’s finger.
  • The law does not apply in cases where the driver is using a phone to contact emergency services.
  • The law prohibits school bus and transit drivers from using cell phones while driving, but doesn’t prohibit them from using cell phones in emergencies or for work-related reasons. The law also doesn’t apply to drivers of emergency vehicles who are using phones within the scope of their job duties.

Ban on Handheld Cell Phones While Driving

California’s cell phone law bans all drivers (not passengers) from using handheld phones to make calls while driving. This law applies to anyone who is driving in the State of California, whether they’re a resident there or not.

Exceptions to the ban on handheld phones while driving:

Exceptions to the ban on handheld phones while driving
  • Handheld phone use is permitted if the driver is making an emergency call to emergency services, including law enforcement, a medical provider, or a fire department.
  • Handheld phone use is allowed by those operating emergency vehicles, as long as they are using the phone for reasons within the scope of their job duties.
  • Handheld phone use is allowed when driving on private property.

How the ban on handheld phones while driving is enforced: Police have primary enforcement authority for this law, which means they can pull you over if they see you using a handheld phone while driving, or suspect you are violating the law; they don’t need any other reason to pull you over.

Hands-Free Cell Phone Law in California

Ban on Texting and Driving in California

Adult drivers in California can still talk on the phone or text if they do so in a voice-activated, hands-free mode. That means that drivers over 18 years old can place or receive phone calls on speakerphone or to a Bluetooth device in hands-free mode (though the law specifies that they must be able to answer the phone and hang up with only one tap or swipe of a finger). They can also text as long as they use voice-to-text. Their phone must be mounted in a place in the vehicle where it won’t take their attention away from the road, but also doesn’t block their view of the road.

For drivers who are under 18, even hands-free cell phone use is not allowed under state law. The only exception to this is if the underaged driver is making an emergency call to emergency services.

How the hands-free cell phone law is enforced: For drivers under the age of 18, police have secondary enforcement authority. That means they can’t pull over a driver just because they suspect they are underage and violating the hands-free cell phone law. They can, however, pull the driver over for another reason and then issue a cell phone ticket if they find evidence that the cell phone law was violated.

Ban on Texting and Driving in California

Ban on Texting and Driving in California

The law prohibits both calling and texting for all drivers, unless the phone is being used in a voice-operated, hands-free mode by a driver over the age of 18.

Previous versions of California’s cell phone law prohibited only “text-based” communication, but the new version of the law bans all wireless device functions, making it illegal to use social media, program your GPS, use a web browser, or any other mobile phone function that can’t be done hands-free without requiring you to take your eyes off the road.

How Much is a Cell Phone Ticket in California

How Much is a Cell Phone Ticket in California

The base fine for a cell phone ticket is $20 for a first offense and $50 for all subsequent offenses. This applies to adults who violate the handheld cell phone law, as well as underaged drivers who violate the hands-free law. In addition to the base fines, you’ll be required to pay a variety of assessments and fees that depend on the city and county where you received the ticket. With these included, the average cost of a first offense is over $150, while the average cost of a subsequent offense is over $250.

Points for Cell Phone Tickets in California

However, fines and fees aren’t the only cost of an infraction in California — many also result in points on your license, which can in turn cause your auto insurance rate to skyrocket. So is that the case for cell phone tickets?

Luckily, for a cell phone ticket alone, you won’t receive any points on your license. However, if you receive a cell phone ticket within 36 months of a prior cell phone ticket, or any other distracted driving violation, you will receive one point on your license. The point will remain on your record for 36 months.

There’s also no guarantee that the first offense won’t result in higher insurance rates. Your best bet for avoiding fines, points, and other consequences is to follow California’s cell phone laws and avoid getting a ticket in the first place.

Is a Cell Phone Law Violation a Crime?

In California, a cell phone ticket is an infraction, meaning you won’t be charged with a crime or face any punishment beyond fines.

However, if you ignore a cell phone ticket, you could be charged with failure to appear.

What is the Effect of a Cell Phone Ticket on a Personal Injury Lawsuit

Something that can make a cell phone ticket much more serious is if you receive it as a result of an accident. If you violate California’s distracted driving law and cause an accident, you could be found negligent in a personal injury lawsuit, meaning you’re responsible for paying for all the damages of the accident.

If this happens to you, you’ll have to go to court, where an attorney will try to prove that your negligence was the cause of the crash. Negligence in a personal injury lawsuit is sometimes difficult to prove in California, but a cell phone ticket helps build a case against you.

How to Get Out of a Cell Phone Ticket in California

How to Get Out of a Cell Phone Ticket in California

There are legal defenses that you can use to fight a cell phone ticket in California, but they’ll depend on the individual circumstances of your ticket. It’s always best to consult with an attorney before trying to fight any kind of traffic ticket.

Common Defenses for Cell Phone Tickets

If you’re caught using a handheld phone while driving, there are a few common defenses:

  • You fit one of the law’s exceptions. For example, if you were making an emergency call to law enforcement, medical services, or the fire department, phone use while driving is not illegal.
  • Your vehicle was not moving.
  • The officer was mistaken and you were not using a handheld phone.

Do You Need an Attorney for a Cell Phone Ticket in California?

If you plan to plead guilty to the violation (which you do automatically if you pay the fine, fees, and assessments by the date listed on the back of your ticket), you don’t need an attorney. But if you plan to fight the ticket, having a qualified traffic lawyer to represent you can be helpful, because:

  • Attorneys know how to get charge reductions and dismissals.
  • Prosecutors may offer a better deal to a defendant who has an attorney.

Do You Have to Go to Court for a Cell Phone Ticket in California?

If you pay your ticket by the date listed on the back, you do not have to go to court. If you want to fight your ticket, you may be required to appear in court to do so.

What Happens if you Ignore a Cell Phone Ticket?

Ignoring any traffic ticket in California can lead to serious consequences. In the case of a cell phone ticket, when you sign the back of the ticket, you are agreeing to either plead guilty and pay for your ticket by the listed date, or to appear in court on that date.

Can You Do Traffic School for a Cell Phone Ticket in California?

If you receive only one cell phone ticket, no point will go on your license, so traffic school isn’t necessary.

However, under new distracted driving laws, you will receive one point if you get a cell phone ticket within 36 months of a prior cell phone ticket or any other distracted driving ticket. In that case, it’s up to the court whether they’ll allow you to go to traffic school and remove the point.

If a judge approves, you can sign up for Best Online Traffic School, one of the most affordable online courses, and complete traffic school, stress-free, on your own time.

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