Failure to Signal When Required

Under G.S. 20-154(a), “before starting, stopping or turning from a direct line [, a driver] shall first see that such movement can be made in safety . . . and whenever the operation of any other vehicle may be affected by such movement, shall give a signal as required” by law. A violation of this statute is usually called “unsafe movement,” but I’ll call it failure to signal when required. The court of appeals just decided a case in this area that’s worth noting.

First, a little background. In State v. Ivey, 360 N.C. 562 (2006), an officer, following “some distance directly behind the [defendant’s] automobile, saw defendant come to a complete stop at a T-intersection and then make a right turn without signaling. A concrete median at the T-intersection blocked a left turn, so that . . . [the] defendant had no choice but to turn right.” The officer stopped the defendant for failure to signal when required, even though “[t]here [was] no indication that any other automobile or pedestrian traffic which might have been in the area would have been affected by defendant’s operation of the vehicle.” During the stop, the officer obtained the defendant’s consent to search his vehicle. The officer found a gun in the vehicle, which led to weapons charges against the defendant. The defendant moved to suppress, contesting the validity of the stop. The issue eventually reached the state supreme court, which ruled for the defendant, holding that (1) “unless the operation of some other vehicle may be affected by” a turn, there is no duty to signal before turning, and (2) because the defendant was required to stop, then turn right at the intersection, and because the officer was likewise required to stop, then turn right, no vehicle was affected by the defendant’s failure to signal.

The court later decided State v. Styles, 362 N.C. 412 (2008), in which an officer stopped the defendant for failure to signal when required after the defendant changed lanes “immediately in front of” the officer. Without extensive analysis, the majority stated that “changing lanes immediately in front of another vehicle may affect the operation of the trailing vehicle.” The dissent disagreed, arguing equally briefly that the mere fact that one vehicle changes lanes immediately in front of another vehicle does not necessarily affect the operation of the following vehicle.

Last week, the court of appeals decided State v. McRae. An officer was following “directly behind” the defendant’s car in an area where there was a “medium level of traffic” when the defendant turned into a gas station without signaling. The officer stopped the defendant for failure to signal when required. (There was another possible basis for the stop, too, but it isn’t relevant to this post.) As to whether the stop was justified, the court of appeals reasoned, “[i]n this case . . . as in Styles, defendant was traveling, before his turn, in a through lane with ‘medium’ traffic and was a short distance in front of the police officer. . . [so] the failure to use a turn signal could have affected another motor vehicle.”

McRae does seem indistinguishable from Styles: if changing lanes in front of a car can affect the trailing car, certainly turning out of a through lane in front of a car can do the same. I wanted to mention the case for two reasons. First, it’s a convenient opportunity to summarize the law in this area. Second, I think there’s probably a “best practices” lesson here. Ideally, the prosecutor would have the officer testify that as a result of the defendant’s turn, the officer — or the driver of another vehicle, in an appropriate case — was forced to slow down, steer around the defendant, or otherwise alter his driving. Absent such testimony, I can imagine cases getting bogged down in disputes about how far back the officer was, i.e., whether he was “immediately” behind the defendant or further back, and  whether there really could have been an impact on his driving at various distances.