Australia: Gotcha! NSW highway patrol cameras zoom in over the shoulder of drivers using mobile phones

Last Updated: 11 September 2019
Article by John Gooley

Technology employed by NSW police constantly being refined and upgraded

Drivers in NSW should be aware of the capabilities of cameras mounted on the outrigger extensions of highway patrol vehicle roof bar units, and the use of such cameras in detecting mobile phone use by drivers.

Before I go any further, let me emphasise that using a mobile phone while driving is illegal, as well as stupid and dangerous. What's more, as we've seen at Hornsby Local Court recently, you're more likely than ever to get caught.

Back in the olden days we had a local highway patrol officer who said he could detect mobile phone use by drivers, even with the phone held below the door sill level, at night, from a long distance. He could recognise the distinctive colours and changes of said phones when they were activated, as they were reflected on windows and even spectacle lenses. Use of mobile phones for navigation was no exception.

These days, highway patrol officers have no need for such uncanny skills, as the technology employed by NSW police is constantly being refined and upgraded. Cameras mounted on police vehicles are no exception to this trend. The never-ending war on mobile phone use by drivers becomes ever more sophisticated.

Highway patrol cameras can take photos over driver's right shoulder

NSW drivers should be aware that the cameras on the outrigger extensions of highway patrol vehicle roof bar units can be adjusted to focus downward, towards the front, at pre-determined angles.

When the vehicle is driven carefully, the camera can surreptitiously take a photo over the driver's right shoulder, possibly even a short video – not just of the phone, but a large zoomable shot of whatever is on the phone screen at the time.

"Have you seen the photos?"

This latest development was on display here in Hornsby when a gentleman pled not guilty to using his phone while driving, and said he was using it as a navigation device at the time. Before agreeing to set a hearing date, the magistrate asked: "Have you seen the photos?" to which he replied: "What photos?"

The prosecutor said that they had not been sent to the defendant, as no plea was entered before the first court date, but he had a set for him now that a "not guilty" plea had been entered.

Photos of driver's phone contradict "not guilty" plea

The magistrate said it might help if he had a look at the photos now. Which the defendant did. They were glossy and seemed to be between an A4 and A3 size. The phone screen was in full colour and larger than life size. And it was not a navigation exercise displayed on the screen.

It seemed that the highway patrol vehicle was travelling in a parallel lane, but about a metre or two back from the front of the defendant's vehicle.

What should I do about a "use mobile phone while driving" charge?

We have advised a couple of our current clients that their defence of similar "use mobile phone while driving" charges now need to be supported by additional documentation.

If you are facing such a charge, you should be aware of this necessity.

  • You need to obtain call records, for several minutes at least, covering both inward and outward calls, to prove you were not on a phone call at the time on the ticket.
  • You or your lawyer need to contact the Officer in Charge as soon as possible to see if any photographs are in existence for the charge.
  • If yes, you or your lawyer need to have a real quick look at them.

Perhaps it will be obvious in time, but currently there are no rules to cover disclosure of such material before a plea is entered.

The main point is that if these new proofs of evidence can be seen early, then a driver can plead guilty early and receive a 25% discount on the sentence.

John Gooley
Traffic and driving offences
Stacks Collins Thompson

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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