City Council delays action enforcing Tennessee’s hands-free driving law in Memphis

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — After a couple of months not being able to enforce Tennessee's hands-free driving law, there seems to be even more confusion about how Memphis Police can crack down on distracted driving.

The hands-free driving law was passed by the State of Tennessee starting on July 1, but the City of Memphis needed its own ordinance before its police could fully enforce the new law. At Tuesday's public safety meeting, officials and the Memphis Police Department showed there’s still a gap in communication and information.

One thing is for sure, Memphis Police said they have not been handing out fines for distracted driving since the state law passed, instead issuing verbal and written warnings. That’s because they believe, while they do have the jurisdiction to hand out tickets, the city court system can’t issue fines.

Meanwhile, the Memphis City Council stated Tuesday they think police should be able to enforce the law with no issue, and both sides said they need more information.

“I feel comfortable that we asked the important questions," Memphis City Council member Jamita Swearengen said. "We knew to continue it further because we didn’t have all the details.”

“That just happens," City Council attorney Allan Wade said. "Making sausage in Nashville is a difficult thing, and sometimes they don’t get it all right.”

Other cities across the state have ordinances that make any state law enforceable by local authorities, but Memphis does not. The months of confusion has triggered thousands of dollars in missed fines, but officials insist they’d rather proceed with caution.

“I don’t know that you’re motivated to adopt ordinances to collect fines or fees," Wade said. "Cell phone usage while driving is a big big problem, and I think that’s what the major focus should be on.”

The city attorney wasn’t present at Tuesday's public safety meeting, so the issue was tabled two weeks until they reconvene. From there, it will take six weeks in City Council before any ordinance is finalized.

“As a leader, that’s what you should do," Swearengen said. "You should not make anything go forward. You should not allow constituents to comply with anything that is not totally understood within the law.”

The issue will be revisited in two weeks, but for now, there are no changes, and MPD  will continue to hand out warnings regarding the hands-free driving law.

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