Iilari Sahamies was arrested in April 2020 in Fairfax County, Virginia. Sahamies had been expelled from high school in Berkeley, California and had been practicing the street game of “poker.” Her lawyer, Dr. Bernard Loewy, said that a friend found her in the bathroom of a Park Road bar where she had gone after school, talking on her cellphone.
Certain facts in the case do not appear to mesh with traditional wisdom about the dangers of texting while driving. A person can be doing the equivalent of 50 miles per hour when they text their way through traffic, but studies have shown that texting while driving is not necessarily more dangerous than reading a book.
The attorney general’s office believed that Sahamies was talking on her phone when she ran a stop sign. They did not believe that her conversations were sexual in nature and did not charge her with any sex crimes.
Sahamies’ arrest was notable because she became the first person in the United States charged with using her cell phone while driving to engage in a criminal activity. The other charges were misdemeanors. But this case has come under fire from legal experts, because the charges are not consistent with standard law enforcement practices.
According to the attorney general’s office, they received an anonymous call about Sahamies talking on her phone. They then searched her phone and discovered text messages from a “friend” that were “apparent sexual communications” and a message that said “be careful,” according to news reports.
Her attorney, Dr. Loewy, said that his client was asked to step out of her car, which is why the “friend” came to her aid. According to the attorney general’s office, the “friend” was actually Sahamies’ grandmother.
The charges against Sahamies included use of a cellular telephone for the purpose of sending or receiving a communication, which is a misdemeanor, and improper relationship between a cell phone and a motor vehicle, which is a felony. In Virginia, it is illegal to text while driving. But as Loewy put it, the problem is, “Cell phones are inherently a phone and not a handheld computer” and cannot be used to commit crimes like murder or fraud.
There have been other similar incidents. In March, an Idaho woman was sentenced to two years in prison for using her phone to send a nude picture of herself to a man.
If it were possible for a man to drink too much and text while driving, then a man like Sahamies would be committing the same crime. But, according to legal experts, there are important differences between the phone and handheld computer cases.
First, the ability to use a handheld computer and do anything remotely through that computer does not mean that the computer is actually to blame for any wrongdoing. Second, using a hand-held computer to do anything remotely via the Internet is considered a violation of computer safety laws. And third, while the Internet can be a tool for good, there are criminal uses of the Internet, and a wireless Internet connection is not the same as a landline.
So, for instance, the FBI did not charge Rodney Alcala, the man who killed the mother of his children, with sending inappropriate text messages while driving a motorcycle. As long as there are laws that address the issue of how the internet and cell phones can be used for a variety of criminal activity, it will continue to raise the concern that we are treating our cell phones as weapons.
According toSahamies’ attorney, his client is “less culpable than the teenager who was the mastermind behind the plot to murder his girlfriend and then he did it in self defense.” “We still have not shown that she was a communicator and not just using her phone.”