Two recent cases from the court of appeals have added to our state’s weaving jurisprudence. One of them is a pretty big deal, as I’ll explain below.
But first, the background. G.S. 20-146 requires that “[a] vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.” Weaving within a single lane does not appear to violate G.S. 20-146 and so is not itself a crime or infraction.
Nor is weaving within a single lane, by itself, generally sufficient to provide reasonable suspicion of DWI. In State v. Fields, 195 N.C. App. 740 (2009), The court of appeals considered a stop made by an officer who had followed the defendant for 1.5 miles and “saw defendant’s car swerve to the white line on the right side of the traffic lane” three times. The court invalidated the stop, stating that a “defendant’s weaving within his lane, standing alone, is insufficient to support a reasonable suspicion that defendant was driving under the influence of alcohol.” The Fields court did acknowledge that weaving may contribute to reasonable suspicion, and specifically observed that the defendant in that case was not speeding, was not driving significantly below the speed limit, was stopped in the afternoon rather than an “unusual hour,” and was not stopped near “any places to purchase alcohol.” See also State v. Peele, 196 N.C. App. 668 (2009) (no reasonable suspicion of DWI where, around 8 p.m., an officer received an anonymous tip about a burgundy truck that was a “possible careless and reckless, D.W.I.,” quickly located the truck, and observed it for 0.1 miles, during which the truck weaved once within its lane).
The court of appeals’ recent decision in State v. Otto, __ N.C. App. __, 718 S.E.2d 181 (2011), is generally in keeping with Fields and Peele. At 11 p.m., an officer noticed the defendant weaving within her lane. The officer initiated a stop after following the defendant for approximately ¾ of a mile. When the officer initially observed the defendant, she was approximately half a mile from the Rock Springs Equestrian Club, and was coming from the direction of the club. The officer was aware that a banquet was being held at the club that evening, and the officer had heard that alcohol was sometimes served at club events. The court of appeals determined there was no evidence that the club regularly served alcohol and so there was no basis for the officer to presume that alcohol was served that evening. The court then held that the trial court erred in concluding that the officer had a reasonable, articulable suspicion for stopping the defendant’s vehicle, stating: “Without any additional circumstances giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, stopping a vehicle for weaving is unreasonable.” There was a dissent in Otto, so we may hear more about it, but it is in line with the “weaving plus” requirement of Fields.
The relative blockbuster is the second recent case, State v. Fields, __ N.C. App. __, __S.E.2d __ (Mar. 6, 2012). I wish it had a different name, but it doesn’t, so to distinguish it from the previous Fields case, I’ll note the year of each decision. In the 2012 Fields case, an officer followed the defendant for ¾ of a mile and saw him “weaving in his own lane . . . sufficiently frequent[ly] and erratic[ly] to prompt evasive maneuvers from other drivers.” The officer stopped the defendant on suspicion of DWI. The defendant was indeed impaired, and was charged with habitual DWI. The defendant moved to suppress, arguing that weaving within a single lane doesn’t provide reasonable suspicion to support a stop. The trial court denied the motion, and after the defendant was convicted, the court of appeals affirmed. Distinguishing the 2009 Fields case, the court stated that the defendant in this case did not merely weave once or twice within his lane, but rather drove like a “ball bouncing in a small room.”
The 2012 Fields case strikes me as a very big deal, because it holds that an officer doesn’t always need “weaving plus,” notwithstanding the fact that the 2009 Fields case pretty clearly said that weaving alone isn’t enough. How severe must a driver’s weaving be before it is alone sufficient to support a stop? We don’t know exactly, but the fact that other drivers were taking evasive action appears to be a significant factor in the court’s analysis. The court also seems to have been impressed with the officer’s colorful description of the defendant’s driving. Officers, this case suggests that you need to polish up your similes. Was a driver weaving like a squirrel caught in a roadway? Like a skier racing a slalom? How you capture the driver’s conduct in words may determine whether you are permitted to capture the driver in the Fields.