Bad Driving Doesn’t Necessarily Violate Chapter 20

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That’s my take-away from State v. Johnson, decided by the court of appeals last week.

Facts. Johnson began at 10:00 one February evening in Hendersonville. Snow had just begun to fall. An officer was stopped at a red light when the defendant pulled up next to the officer in a left-turn lane. The defendant was blaring his music and revving his engine. When the light turned green, the defendant accelerated into a left turn, screeching his tires and fishtailing his truck. The vehicle did not contact the sidewalk and stayed within the proper lane of travel. There were no pedestrians or other vehicles in the area. The officer stopped the defendant for unsafe movement for the conditions of the roadway. The defendant turned out to be impaired and was charged with DWI.

Procedural history. The defendant moved to suppress, arguing that the stop was not based on reasonable suspicion. A district court judge preliminarily agreed, but on review, a superior court judge upheld the stop and remanded the case. The defendant pled guilty to DWI in district court and appealed to superior court. He again moved to suppress, and the motion was denied. He pled guilty and appealed to the appellate division.

Court of appeals opinion. The appellate court ruled unanimously that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion. It considered two statutes: G.S. 20-141(a), which prohibits driving at a speed “greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing,” and G.S. 20-154(a), which prohibits “starting, stopping or turning from a direct line” without first “see[ing] that such movement can be made in safety.” (The court didn’t consider the reckless driving statute, G.S. 20-140, as a possible basis for the stop, perhaps because the officer’s explanation of the reason for the stop didn’t reference recklessness.)

The court observed that the defendant (1) stayed in his lane, (2) did not hit the sidewalk, (3) did not exceed any posted speed limit, and (4) did not risk a collision with another vehicle or a pedestrian. Therefore, it concluded that “[n]othing that . . . the trial court found that Defendant had done . . . constituted unsafe driving, as defined by our statutes, even factoring in the weather conditions.”

Analysis. I admit to being a little surprised by Johnson. I would have thought that a motorist who is going fast enough to fishtail his or her vehicle is going faster than is “prudent,” even if no one else is around and even if the driver is able to keep the vehicle in its lane. (Importantly, there does not seem to have been any suggestion that the road at issue in Johnson had a concealed defect, such as a patch of black ice, that would have caused even a cautious driver to lose traction.) See, e.g., State v. Thibault, 564 A.2d 603 (Vt. 1989) (affirming an unsafe movement conviction where the tires of the defendant’s vehicle squealed and spun, and stating that “the spinning of the tires made it unsafe to proceed while the tires were in spinning motion”).

But my surprise is neither here nor there. Assuming that Johnson isn’t reviewed further, it will be interesting to see how it applies to other driving behavior that seems risky to my middle-aged sensibilities but that may be accomplished in a single lane and below posted limits, such as drifting, burn-outs, and jackrabbit starts. It may also be worth noting that similar driving when other vehicles or pedestrians are nearby may have different consequences. See, e.g., State v. Duncan, 781 S.E.2d 531 (N.C. Ct. App. Jan. 5, 2016) (unpublished) (reasonable suspicion of reckless driving existed where the defendant revved his truck; fishtailed it while pulling out of a parking lot, lifting a tire off the ground; and slung gravel with pedestrians and other vehicles nearby).

12 comments on “Bad Driving Doesn’t Necessarily Violate Chapter 20

  1. I guess Officer Gardin should have just waited until Mr. Johnson skidded on the snow and slammed into another car. Maybe it even would be better if said car was full of children and puppies. At what point will some of the current judges on the CoA acknowledge that they understand and can apply the concept of reasonable suspicion? Johnson didn’t need to have definitively broken the law for the stop to be justified, and interestingly, whereas the trial judge found the behavior to have amounted to probable cause (more than what was needed for the stop), this panel didn’t even believe it satisfied the reasonable suspicion standard. Remarkable.

    • I’ll second this comment. The driver demonstrated poor driving/decisionmaking in the moment Officer Gardin observed him. He didn’t need to follow him and wait to see if his next left turn resulted in a less fortuitous outcome.

      • I will also third this comment. If he didn’t pull him over the driver could have killed someone from drunk driving later on in the evening.

      • C’mon John. It snows up here in the mountains. The roads were slushy- that’s why his tires spun out. Welty doesn’t mention the officer testified that there was ice slush on the roads.

  2. This “panel” has apparently applied good logic and common sense, and went along with the well established ‘common law’ precedent. That void the production of a injured ‘corpus delicti’ there is no right to ‘civil or criminal’ action.

  3. Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. — Benjamin Franklin

    • Last I checked, driving was neither an essential liberty, nor a right. Fantastic non-sequitur though.

  4. The right to drive like this and in these conditions is an “essential Liberty”? Honestly? Also, kudos, Walter, for misusing the quote, like so many do — http://www.npr.org/2015/03/02/390245038/ben-franklins-famous-liberty-safety-quote-lost-its-context-in-21st-century: “It is a quotation that defends the authority of a legislature to govern in the interests of collective security. It means, in context, not quite the opposite of what it’s almost always quoted as saying but much closer to the opposite than to the thing that people think it means.”

  5. Often, the facts cited in the opinion are not all the facts of the case. To better understand the reasoning of the COA, regardless of which way it rules, you should always go to the briefs of the parties to see the facts they cite. Doing so can be eye-opening.

  6. CoA’s decision reversed by unanimous Court — https://appellate.nccourts.org/opinions/?c=1&pdf=35901

  7. I have a friend with a supercar , who got pulled over, although not ticketed, after accelerating very quickly from a stop. He never exceeded the speed limit, never fishtailed or got near a line, simply went from 0 to 55 in a matter of a few seconds. The Officer could not point to any danger from the practice, but said he ” just didn’t think it was safe ” and let him go with a mild warning. That begs the question, which is bound to come up: What, if any are the laws about how long a driver takes to achieve the speed limit given that no unsafe movements were observed? While it may be startling for a driver to accelerate rapidly, does that alone rise to the level of recklessness or other violation? Just curious.

  8. […] If you thought the stop was unlawful, don’t feel badly.  A unanimous panel of court of appeals judges did too. See State v. Johnson, ___ N.C. App. ___, 784 S.E.2d 633 (2016), reversed, __ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (2017) (discussed in this earlier post). […]

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