Stopped for “Normal” Driving

A good rule of thumb is that most interesting impaired driving appeals come from Pitt County. Whether that is related to ECU’s ranking as a top five “party school,” I don’t know. In any event, today’s batch of opinions from the court of appeals includes another intriguing Pitt County DWI, State v. Osterhoudt.

The facts of the case are pretty simple: the defendant was driving in Greenville when he turned onto Fifth Street heading west. At the relevant intersection, Fifth Street has three lanes, one eastbound and two westbound. One of the westbound lanes is a “regular” lane and one is a left-turn lane. The defendant made a wide turn onto Fifth Street, initially crossing partway into the left-turn lane, which was separated from the regular lane by a double yellow line, before settling into the regular lane. An officer saw the turn and stopped the defendant, who turned out to be impaired. The officer charged the defendant with DWI and driving left of center.

The defendant moved to suppress, arguing that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation and that the stop was therefore unlawful. He prevailed in district court and in superior court, with the superior court judge finding that the defendant’s wide right turn did not cross the “middle halfway point” of Fifth Street and was “normal” driving that did not affect other traffic.

The state appealed, and after a discussion of some procedural issues concerning the appeal, the court of appeals reversed. It analyzed the issues as follows:

  • Although the officer charged the defendant with driving left of center under G.S. 20-146(a), the court of appeals noted that G.S. 20-146(a)(3) creates an exception to the right-of-center rule for any “highway divided into three marked lanes,” such as Fifth Street. Therefore, the defendant was correct in arguing that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion of a left-of-center violation.
  • However, G.S. 20-146(d)(1) requires drivers to drive “as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane,” and G.S. 20-146(d)(3)-(4) require drivers to follow traffic control devices and markings, such as the double yellow line between lanes, which prohibited changing lanes. The defendant didn’t stay in his lane, and he did cross the double yellow line.
  • Furthermore, G.S. 20-153(a) provides that “[b]oth the approach for a right turn and a right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.” The defendant’s wide right turn didn’t comply with that mandate.
  • Because the officer had an objective justification for the stop, the fact that he actually made the stop for another reason, one that was not legally correct, is irrelevant.
  • Whether or not the defendant’s driving was “normal,” in the sense of being common or typical, was not dispositive. Because the officer had facts supporting a reasonable, articulable suspicion of a traffic violation, the stop was justified.

The court’s analysis seems spot-on. In particular, it has to be right that whether a particular method of driving is widespread is irrelevant to whether it can support a stop. Otherwise, no one could ever be stopped for speeding, because speeding is “normal.” Indeed, any law that a sufficient number of people disregarded would be rendered unenforceable. In our system, repeal, rather than noncompliance, is the way to get rid of undesirable regulations.