Bad Driving Doesn’t Necessarily Violate Chapter 20

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).