When Elon Musk livestreamed a drive through Palo Alto, California on Friday afternoon, he was holding his phone — which is plainly and clearly illegal under California law. But the Palo Alto Police Department won’t be issuing a fine, it tells The Verge, because police didn’t witness the crime themselves.
“Had an officer observed the driver with the phone in their hand, they could have issued the driver an infraction ticket for violating California’s handsfree law,” writes Palo Alto PD Captain James Reifschneider.
“As no officer witnessed it happening in person at the time of occurrence, though, no ticket is forthcoming,” he told me via email.
There’s no question that Musk was in control of the vehicle: he was forced to stop his “Full Self Driving” system from running a red light partway through the livestream, and he reveals that he’s in the drivers seat by turning the camera on himself near the 30-minute mark.
Image: Elon Musk
Let me be clear: I’m pretty sure Palo Alto Police have better things to do than chase down the world’s richest man for a $20 fine. (That’s the only punishment for a first offense — you can get a point against your driving record for a second offense, but only if it happens within three years of the first violation.)
But Musk has been known to repeatedly flout the law — see my linkbox — and some are beginning to question his power. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow recently published “Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule” at The New Yorker, a piece of reporting that shows, among other things, how SpaceX’s Starlink satellites became so important to the war in Ukraine that the US government was forced to treat him with kid gloves.
“He is more like a nation-state than an individual in terms of the implications of his power,” Farrow told Fresh Air.
As my colleague Andrew Hawkins points out, the US government may be about to make a major decision regarding Musk — whether or not to force a recall of Tesla’s autopilot software following the NHTSA investigation into over a dozen crashes where Autopilot cars hit stationary emergency vehicles.
Reifschneider, the police captain, says that there are practical reasons why the department doesn’t ticket without personally observing a driver — they need to be able to tell a judge what they saw, verify the driver’s identity and driver’s license, and collect a license plate or VIN number for the vehicle to support the citation.
“The officer needs to be prepared to testify in court about what they personally observed (namely, that they saw the phone in the driver’s hand),” he writes.