That’s my take-away from State v. Johnson, decided by the court of appeals last week. Continue reading
Tag Archives: unsafe movement
Law enforcement officers may stop a vehicle when they have reasonable suspicion to believe that the driver has violated a traffic law. See State v. Styles, 362 N.C. 412, 415, 665 S.E.2d 438, 440 (2008). This rule applies regardless of whether the offense is a felony, misdemeanor or infraction, and regardless of whether the officer has an ulterior motive for making the stop. See Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996).
The expansive scope of this authority is well-recognized. Some have argued that the “heavy and minute” regulation of vehicles renders “total compliance with traffic and safety rules nearly impossible.” Whren, 517 U.S. at 810 (citing petitioner’s argument to this effect). Thus, they say, “a police officer will almost invariably be able to catch any given motorist in a technical violation.” Id.
A quick review of criminal case law provides some support for that notion. Law enforcement officers frequently substantiate more serious criminal conduct through citizen encounters that begin with a simple traffic stop. See, e.g., State v. Heien, 366 N.C. 271 (2012) (defendant stopped for ostensible brake light violation and arrested for drug trafficking); State v. Dickenson, __ N.C. App. ___ (April 15, 2014) (unpublished) (defendant stopped for failure to wear seatbelt and arrested for drug trafficking); State v. Franklin, __ N.C. App. __, 736 S.E.2d 218 (2012) (defendant stopped for seatbelt violation and arrested for drug crimes); State v. Townes, ___ N.C. App. ___, 734 S.E.2d 139 (November 6, 2012) (unpublished) (defendant stopped based on DMV insurance stop and arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and felony drug crime); State v. Osterhoudt, ___ N.C. App. ___; 731 S.E.2d 454, 460 (2012) (defendant stopped after officer observed him cross double yellow line while making right turn and arrested for DWI).
And while most folks know that speeding and failure to wear a seatbelt is unlawful, many are surprised to learn about other common driving behaviors that likewise are prohibited.
My top three little-known and oft-ignored traffic rules are below.
1. Stopping behind the white line. When a stop sign or traffic signal requires a vehicle to come to a complete stop at an intersection or some other place in the road, the vehicle must stop at the appropriately marked stop line, if there is one. See G.S. 20-158(b)(5); (c)(5). A driver who stops his or her vehicle before entering an intersection or proceeding past the sign or signal—but beyond a marked stop line—has committed a traffic violation for which he or she may be stopped. I always stop before the sign or signal, but I seldom focus on whether my front tires are over the line, unless there is a marked crosswalk. I’m sure I’m not alone.
2. The two-second rule. G.S. 20-152 prohibits the driver of a motor vehicle from following another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent. The State Highway Patrol recommends that motorists keep at least one car length interval per 10 miles per hour of speed. So, if the car in front of you is traveling 60 miles per hour, you should remain six car lengths behind it. The state DMV handbook advises drivers to follow the “two-second rule,” which requires drivers to allow two seconds between the time the vehicle ahead of you passes a given point and the time your vehicle reaches the same point. I’m going to test this one out on I-40 on my way home. If I don’t, I’m subject to being stopped for following too closely in violation of G.S. 20-152. In United States v. Mubdi, 691 F.3d 334, 337 (4th Cir. 2012), cert. granted, judgment vacated on other grounds, 133 S. Ct. 2851, 186 L. Ed. 2d 902 (U.S. 2013), the NC Highway Patrol officer who stopped the defendant explained that he relied on the two-second and car-length rules in determining whether a driver had violated G.S. 20-152.
3. Signaling before changing lanes. G.S. 20-154 requires drivers on streets, highways and public vehicular areas to signal before starting stopping or turning from a direct line if another vehicle may be affected. Changing lanes is a turn requiring a signal under this provision. See Sass v. Thomas, 90 N.C. App. 719 (1988). An officer may not make an investigatory stop of a vehicle for failing to use a turn signal unless a reasonable officer would have believed that the defendant’s failure to use the turn signal might have affected the operation of another vehicle. See State v. Ivey, 360 N.C. 562 (2006) (finding that no violation of G.S. 20-154(a) occurred when a defendant failed to use his turn signal before making a right hand turn at an intersection, which was the only legal movement he could make). Our state appellate courts have concluded that a defendant’s failure to signal before changing lanes when driving immediately in front of another vehicle may affect the operation of the trailing vehicle, see State v. Styles, 362 N.C. 412 (2008), as may turning right in medium traffic while travelling about 100 feet in front of another car, see State v. McRae, 203 N.C. App. 310 (2010). My experience suggests that many, many people do not know about, or possibly know, but do not care to comply with, this rule.
Have a favorite obscure traffic rule of your own for which a motorist might be stopped? Share it using the comment feature below.
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.