MPD officers don’t have authority to ticket for hands-free law ... yet

As of Monday, the distracted driving or hands-free law has been in effect for one year....
As of Monday, the distracted driving or hands-free law has been in effect for one year. (Source: WALB)
Updated: Jul. 3, 2019 at 4:18 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Memphis Police Department says its officers don’t have the authority to issue tickets under the state’s new hands-free law, though other cities do.

The law prohibits using a cellphone with your hands while driving in Tennessee as of July 1.

Memphis police say they cannot issue tickets to any drivers who violate the hands-free law because there’s no city ordinance in place.

MPD released a statement that reads, “There is no city ordinance in place at this time that mirrors the current state law. It is our intent to pursue an ordinance that will allow us to enforce this new state law. At this point, a Memphis Police Officer can make a probable cause traffic stop if someone is seen in violation of the state law; however, the only action that can be taken against the driver, without additional charges, will be issuance of a Memphis Police Department courtesy violation.”

But police departments in other cities like Millington and Germantown tell us their officers had the authority to issue tickets as soon as the state law took effect.

The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office says its deputies had the authority too.

On Wednesday, WMC Action News 5 caught up with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland who offered a clearer explanation.

Strickland says some cities in Tennessee are set up so that when a state law goes into effect it’s automatically enforceable by local police.

He says that’s not how it works in Memphis, though he’d like to see it that way.

"What Nashville did is years ago they have an ordinance that just blankly does it for any new law,” said Strickland. “I think our city council should do the same thing, so that they don't have to pass an ordinance for every single state law. Just blankly do it."

It’s unclear when or if the city council will get around to passing an ordinance like that or to passing a specific ordinance for the hands-free law so Memphis police can write tickets.

Councilwoman Patrice Robinson says she unaware that an ordinance wasn’t already on the books but says she’d talk to her colleagues about it.

Councilman Sherman Greer says he hopes drivers in Memphis will follow the hand-free law, even if MPD can’t write tickets.

“Put those phones down when you're driving still. For one thing, just for safety,” said Greer.

Greer says it’s also important for drivers to know that Shelby County deputies and the Tennessee Highway Patrol are enforcing the law.

MPD says they can issue courtesy violations under the new law and can still write tickets for distracted driving.

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