A Bright Line Rule for Traffic Stops

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A couple of recent court of appeals opinions emphasize a bright-line rule in cases involving traffic stops. An officer who observes a driver commit a traffic violation may stop the driver to address that violation, even when the violation is minor and the officer has elected to respond to the observed violation because she suspects that other unsubstantiated criminal activity may be afoot.

State v. Sutton, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d. ___ (June 5, 2018). In Sutton, an officer with the Jackson County sheriff’s office who was patrolling an area known for drug activity stopped the defendant’s truck after seeing its driver’s side tires cross over the double yellow lines in the center of a curvy, two-lane road by one inch. After the officer stopped the truck, he recognized that the defendant was a person for whom he had been advised to be on the lookout. Earlier that day, an SBI agent told the officer to watch for a vehicle driven by the defendant that was bringing large quantities of methamphetamine to a supplier off of the road where the defendant was stopped. During the stop, the officer developed reasonable suspicion to believe that the defendant had methamphetamine in the truck. He summoned an officer with a canine, methamphetamine was recovered from the truck, and the defendant was indicted for trafficking in methamphetamine.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence gathered during the traffic stop, arguing in part that it was not supported by reasonable suspicion. The trial court determined that the stop was lawful because the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the truck for failing to drive on the right half of a two-lane roadway that was of sufficient width, a violation of G.S. 20-146(a). The court of appeals agreed, stating that though the rules for determining whether a driver could be stopped for weaving are “hazy at best. . . . there is a ‘bright line’ rule in some traffic stop cases.” Slip op. at 3. In Sutton, the court identified that bright line as the double yellow line down the center of the road. The court explained that “[w]here a vehicle actually crosses over the double yellow lines in the center of a road, even once, and even without endangering any other drivers, the driver has committed a traffic violation of [G.S. 20-146] . . . . and the officer may stop the driver without violating his constitutional rights.” Id.

State v. Jones, ___ N.C. App. ___, 813 S.E.2d 668 (April 3, 2018). In Jones, a highway patrol trooper stopped the defendant after seeing his black Chevrolet truck drive slightly left of center in a curve. It was dark, but the trooper could tell that the truck drove left of center because it was driving in the opposite direction from the trooper and one of its headlights was in the trooper’s lane of travel. The trooper had just received notice from dispatch that a caller reported that a black Chevrolet truck was traveling on that road in the direction the defendant was traveling at “‘a careless/reckless high speed.’” Slip op. at 2. Right after the trooper passed the truck, it pulled off on the right hand shoulder of the road. The trooper then turned his vehicle around, activated his blue lights, and stopped the defendant, who subsequently was arrested for driving while impaired.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence resulting from the stop and the trial court denied the defendant’s motion, concluding that the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion. The defendant appealed, arguing that the anonymous call to dispatch did not provide the trooper with reasonable suspicion for the stop. The appellate court rejected the defendant’s argument, finding that the trooper’s “direct observations provided reasonable suspicion for the vehicle stop” since the “Defendant’s act of crossing the double yellow centerline clearly constituted a traffic violation.” Slip op. at 10. The Jones court identified the violation in that case as falling under G.S. 20-150(d), which prohibits a driver from driving to the left side of a visible centerline of a highway on the crest of a grade or on a curve.

That’s the rule, but not everyone likes it. I wrote earlier this year about Justice Ginsburg’s suggestion in her concurrence in District of Columbia v. Wesby, ___ U.S. ___, 138 S.Ct. 577 (2018), that it might be time for the court to re-examine Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996). Whren is the case that removes an officer’s subjective motivations for taking action from the Fourth Amendment analysis. If the officers have probable cause to believe a driver has violated a traffic law, they may stop the driver, regardless of whether they are motivated to make the stop by other as-yet unfounded suspicions. Despite that suggestion and notwithstanding other criticism of Whren (recounted here), it remains the law and North Carolina’s appellate courts continue to apply a bright line rule that sanctions stops based on observed traffic violations.

13 comments on “A Bright Line Rule for Traffic Stops

  1. The most abused and constitutionally suspect traffic stop is for following too closely. Used when any of the other “legitimate” reasons to conduct a traffic stop don’t exist

  2. I apologize for quibbling about the facts, but the facts matter. Based on the evidence the Court did not have sufficient grounds to find that the truck in question crossed the center line in the Jones case. In his revocation report and DWIR form the officer did not mention this alleged crossing of the center line. He had an anonymous tip concerning the truck but that was insufficient RAS to stop the truck. He later added the center line crossing accusation, however his explanation for how he saw it shows that he did not see it. He said he saw the truck’s “lights in his travel lane” and that those lights showed that the truck was “slightly left of center in a curve.” The officer was travelling southbound. The truck was travelling northbound. The curve as seen from the officer’s point of view came from the right, not the left, so that the truck’s headlights had to cross from the right of the officer’s travel lane, into the officer’s travel lane view, then to the other side of the officer’s view whether the truck stayed in its proper lane or not. It was impossible for the officer to have been able to tell under those circumstances whether the truck crossed the center line or not. The officer could not have seen it. Based on what evidence is available the rational conclusion is that the officer told the story about the center-line crossing to legitimize his otherwise illegitimate stop. It is intellectually dishonest to pretend that under these circumstances the officer saw a centerline crossing.

    • Walter, in this day and age of asset forfeiture that benefits the police and the press and kudos officer’s get from making drug busts does anyone living in reality actually believe that an officer will hesitate to tell a ” little white lie ” ( known in legal jargon as false reporting and perjury ) when it will allow him to stop and detain and search someone they suspect has contraband? Let’s be real: the police in general believe that the ends justify the means, and that the limits placed on them by the Courts ” handcuff ” them in their dogged desire to root out crime, especially drug crime. If they have to say that they saw a petty one inch incursion over a line to justify the stop they see that as wholly legitimate in the overall scheme of things. An officer gets a tip that some driver MAY have contraband in their car, they are behind them, and the overwhelming desire to get the arrest will over ride most any officers conscience about inventing a reason. After all, they believe, there is a bad guy selling ” poison ” to the community and surely the sin of an imagined lane violation is justified by the great good that society reaps by his actions. The police are allowed to lie with abandon in all cases, except where an oath is taken, and what is an oath good for if it interferes with their sacred duty to fight the drug war? Only if there is film footage will they hesitate to invent violations, and even then it boils down to perception, and the officer risks nothing by trying to make the case stick. This is what the war on drugs has brought us, police willing to cross the line of truthfulness when they feel it is critical to their goals. To them people who may be factually guilty deserve no consideration when it comes to the fine points of the law. They see Constitutional limitations as bothersome and irritating loopholes for criminals to slip through instead of protections against abusive authority. Remember, to the ;police, a police state is nirvana, a place where no one escapes their attention due to technicalities and their word is not questioned. Thank God we are not there yet, but recent court decisions make it likely that such liberties with honesty will increase. When the ” bright lines ” are so reliant on the nature of hunters slavering for prey, we must be concerned. In the military, where most police spring from, the saying is ” kill hem all and let God sort them out “. In policing, it is ” Stop them all and let the Courts sort them out “. This attitude portends a serious decline in our rights and in the character of the police. Once they cross that line and lie just once about justification for a pretext stop, they have violated their sworn oaths and duties and quickly fall into a habit of it. compromised by that act and experiencing no negative consequences from the Courts or their peers ( on the contrary, they will likely receive acclaim for ” getting the job done ” ) and come to feel comfortable with prevarications that hey see as morally superior to the rule of the law, which is often based not on arrests and seizures but upon ” rights ” and other bothersome roadblocks to the next big bust and headline and promotion. They cannot resist. That is why ALL patrol care should have mandatory dashcams that prove these allegations beyond a certainty. Relying on people with a rabid desire to find a reason to seize is not good policy. The police cannot be trusted to simply allow a suspected vehicle to dive away even if their driving was perfect; The temptation is just too great, We cannot expect them to like we should..not any more. Mandatory video of the violation used to conduct a pretext stop or it did not happen. No wonder so many agencies fight tooth and nail to not have such proof. That is the only way to take the predatory element out of such encounters. And, to preserve the rule of law.

      • When looking into the minds & souls of others,
        only one truth can emerge with certainty,
        that is what is in your own mind or soul.

  3. Big wheel keeps on turning. I noticed Ms Denning posted those cases with a gleam in her eye.

  4. Using hyper-technical alleged violations to conduct an otherwise illegal stop troubles me. One inch? Here in Jackson County as most other areas one would basically have to hug the shoulder of the road to avoid occasionally touching a yellow line. Someone who crosses the line repeatedly might indicate impairment but how many perfect drivers are there? It may be legal according to the courts but these are nothing more than pretext stops. When we teach the police that using ” offenses ” that would otherwise have never resulted in a stop to detain and investigate people it gives one an uncomfortable feeling. While I have no sympathy for meth dealers surely an officer following a car could surely wait for a substantial violation before seizing a person. It is almost impossible for a human being to drive a car perfectly at all times and when the police use obvious ultra minor violations to begin an investigation wholly removed from the traffic issue it bothers me from a civil libertarian standpoint.

    • And what would you consider a substantial violation? Should the officer wait for the driver to run a stop sign? You can call it a “hyper-technical alleged violation,” but the bottom line is it is still a violation. If you think it should be removed from the statutes, then write your state senator or local representative. Thankfully pretext stops are legal, otherwise a lot of criminals would not be brought to justice. When John Q. Citizen gets stopped for crossing the center line, which is a violation, and isn’t involved in any other criminal activity, he will be on his merry way, as he should be, and most likely with nothing more than a warning. Kudos to the officer.

      • Crossing the center line is radically different from your tire going ONE INCH onto it. That is what I call hyper-technicality. It is an obvious and blatant excuse to seize and interrogate, and of course search someone they merely suspect MAY have some contraband. Substantial would be repeatedly indicating an inability to maintain lane control, or some definitive violation. If we suspended the right to remain free from searches based on nothing more than mere suspicion ( not rising to the level of RAS ) or ” inchoate hunches ” then certainly a lot more ” criminals ” would get caught. But at what price? My gripe is that we are training the police to allow temptation to get another bust to convince them that claiming an alleged hyper-technical ” violation ” when it in fact did not happen so that ” justice ” can be done. To an officer, the ends justify the means. To someone with a respect for the Constitution and the spirit of truth the opposite is true. What was that old line about ” Better that a hundred guilty escape than one innocent be wrongly convicted ?” And if you think that being seized and after an interrogation and possible a search that does not yield evidence is cured by being on your ” merry way “, perhaps your vision of what a free people should expect from those supposedly there to ” protect and serve ” is vastly different than mine. I tend to err on the side of caution when expanding police powers already draconian in many respects.

      • Benjamin Franklin said,” Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety .” You were the type of person he had in mind !

  5. Our pretense that our courts or constitutions provide protection against officers stopping whomever of us they wish, whenever they wish, is becoming almost impossible to maintain.

  6. Thanks for this post, Shea. It bears repeating that, while the subjective intent behind a traffic stop is irrelevant to the court’s analysis of a Fourth Amendment challenge, a traffic stop motivated by race (even where supported by reasonable suspicion) violates the motorist’s right to equal protection and constitutes unconstitutional selective enforcement. Neither Mr. Sutton nor Mr. Jones raised equal protection challenges on appeal, but if they had, the court would have been required to consider the subjective motivation behind the officers’ decisions to make the traffic stops. I often hear attorneys say things like “the court can never consider the intent underlying an otherwise valid traffic stop,” and I think it’s important to note that, actually, the court must do so when the defendant raises an equal protection challenge, as discriminatory purpose is one of the two elements the court must evaluate when determining whether the defendant’s equal protection challenge has merit. I appreciate your discussion of alternative grounds for relief in your earlier blog post, and raise this here only as a reminder to blog readers that neither the US Supreme Court’s decision in Whren nor these decisions about crossing double yellow lines place the subjective motivations underlying traffic stops beyond the reach of judicial scrutiny.

  7. Our pretense that our courts or our constitutions provide protection against officers stopping whomever of us they wish, whenever they wish, is becoming almost impossible to maintain.

  8. Would you discuss how the courts have addressed arguments of “unconstitutional (selective) enforcement of the law” with regard to pretextual stop cases (and forgive my laziness for not working my own way out of ignorance)?

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