Keeping It between the Lines

Officer Fife is driving one car length behind Briscoe Darling at noon on a sunny day when he sees the tires on the right side of Darling’s car touch the fog line that borders Darling’s lane to the right. Darling drives on the fog line for a couple of seconds before his tires re-enter the unmarked portion of the lane. A half mile later, Darling’s tires again touch the fog line for a few seconds.

Officer Fife is driving one car length behind Charlene Darling at noon on a sunny day when he sees the tires on the right side of Darling’s car cross over the fog line that borders Darling’s lane to the right. Darling immediately moves her car back into the unmarked portion of the lane.

Officer Fife is driving one car length behind Mitch Darling at 9 a.m. on a cold winter morning when he sees the tires on the right side of Darling’s car cross over the fog line that border’s Darling’s lane to the right.  After a few seconds, Darling moves his car back into the unmarked portion of the lane. Officer Fife is aware that the road the two are traveling is icy in spots.

Officer Fife is a stickler for compliance with motor vehicle laws.  He believes it is his duty to stop anyone who commits a traffic offense, no matter how minor. Which Darling or Darlings may he lawfully stop, and why?

G.S. 20-146(d)(1) requires that vehicles “be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane.” Thus, the first issue for Officer Fife’s consideration is whether the line marking the lane is within or outside of the driver’s lane. A famous law professor recently characterized this question as being akin to a mathematician’s consideration of closed or open intervals and noted that there was “deep disagreement among courts on this question.” Since I’m no mathematician, and this is North Carolina, I’ll avoid the mathematical comparisons and in favor of Fife, the Darlings, and North Carolina law.

Driving on the lane line. Merely touching the lane dividing line or driving on top of it apparently does not run afoul of G.S. 20-146(d)(1). The North Carolina court of appeals determined in State v. Peele, 196 N.C. App. 668 (2009), that the “float[ing]” of a driver’s truck to the dotted line and back to the fog line on a single occasion did not provide reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation. In State v. Kochuck, 366 N.C. 549 (2013) (per curiam, adopting dissenting opinion below), the court considered the totality of the circumstances and relied upon precedent governing weaving within a lane to determine that reasonable suspicion supported the stop of the defendant’s vehicle after the vehicle “momentarily crossed the right dotted line once while in the middle lane” and “later drove on the fog line twice.” See Kochuck, __ N.C. App. ___, ___ 741 S.E.2d 327, 329 (2012) (Beasley, J., dissenting).

Driving over the lane line.  Crossing the line demarcating a lane, even once, does provide reasonable suspicion supporting a traffic stop. In State v. Osterhoudt, ___ N.C. App. ___, 731 S.E.2d 454 (2012), for example, the court held that a trooper’s observation of a defendant driving over a double yellow line when turning right provided a reasonable basis for concluding that the defendant violated G.S. 20-146(d)(1).  Similarly, in State v. Hudson, 206 N.C. App. 482 (2010), the court held that an officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle after seeing his truck twice cross the center and fog lines.

As near as practicable.  As previously noted, G.S. 20-146(d)(1) requires that a vehicle be driven “as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane.” Violation of this provision constitutes negligence per se in a civil action based on injuries or damages resulting from a vehicle’s failure to stay within its lane. A defendant in a civil action may rebut the inference of negligence in such an action by showing that the violation resulted from causes other than his or her own negligence, such as such as the presence of ice, a person, an animal, or another obstruction in the roadway. While no criminal case in North Carolina analyzes the “as near as practicable” qualifier, it seems reasonable to equate it to the same types of evidence that rebut the presumption of negligence in a civil action.

The Court of Appeals of Idaho in State v. Neal, __ P.3d __ (October 15, 2014), recently construed the meaning of “as nearly as practicable” under its lane law in a similar manner. In rejecting the defendant’s argument that Idaho’s statute permitted all sorts of minor deviations from one’s lane, the court explained:

In our view . . . the term “practicable” is unambiguous. It is defined as “able to be done or put into practice successfully,” NEW OXFORD AMERICAN DICTIONARY 1338 (2001), and as “feasible in the circumstances,” BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 1172 (6th ed.1990). These definitions are not consistent with Neal’s contention that “as nearly as practicable” creates a safe harbor permitting a person to occasionally leave his lane, without any apparent need, because doing so falls within the wide spectrum of normal driving behavior. We need not, at this juncture, describe all of the weather conditions, road conditions, behavior of other drivers, or other hazards that might justify a driver in leaving the lane. Here, there is simply nothing in the record to show that Neal left his lane because staying within his lane was not “practicable.”

 Back to the Darlings

Officer Fife has no reasonably objective basis for stopping Brisco Darling as driving on the lane lines is not a violation of G.S. 20-146(d)(1).

Charlene Darling should prepare for the blue lights as Officer Fife’s observations provide reasonable suspicion for a stop.

As for Mitch Darling, reasonable minds could disagree. Officer Fife does not know whether Mitch Darling drove outside of his lane because he skidded on ice. Arguably, Officer Fife could cross the relatively low reasonable suspicion threshold based on his observation of the tires crossing the fog line, without considering whether Mitch could have prevented that from occurring. On the other hand, has anyone seen a North Carolinian drive on ice?  If all Mitch did was briefly leave his lane, he might deserve commendation rather than citation.