Thursday, January 2, 2003
Touching Wheel to White Line Not Illegal Lane-Straddling, Appeals Court Rules in Fourth Amendment Dispute
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
A police officer went too far when he pulled over a car for drifting onto the painted white fog line on Interstate 15, and the drugs he subsequently recovered from the car should have been suppressed, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
Touching the line before making a safe lane change gave the officer no cause to pull over the driver for either drunk driving or violating a California Vehicle Code prohibition on “lane straddling,” the court ruled. That made the early-morning stop invalid, and voided the consent that a nervous driver and passenger gave to the officer asking to search the car, the court ruled.
The ruling lets driver Efrain Estrada-Nava and passenger Eric Colin off the hook after their indictment and guilty pleas to one count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute.
They pled after U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow of the Central District of California rejected their argument that the evidence was the fruit of an illegal stop and search. Morrow reasoned that if their wheel touched the line some part of their blue Honda car must have crossed over, breaking the Vehicle Code Sec. 21658(a) requirement that cars be driven “as nearly as practical entirely within a single lane.”
Neither Morrow nor the three-judge Ninth Circuit panel had much guidance in California case law on just what constitutes illegal lane-straddling. No state Supreme Court decision defines the act.
But Judge Richard A. Paez cited a Los Angeles Superior Court Appellate Department ruling from the 1970s and said just touching the painted line doesn’t make the driver a law violator.
“The Honda touched the lines only twice, both times before making safe lane changes,” Paez said. “It is reasonable that a driver with no cars abreast of him might veer slightly within his lane or over the lane line in the course of making a lane change to ensure that it is safe to do so.”
The stop occurred on I-15 just after 2 a.m. on Nov. 12, 1999. Sgt. Thomas Carmichael pulled behind the Honda and saw it drift onto the solid white fog line on the far right side of the lane and stay there for about 10 seconds. The car then drifted to the left side, properly signaled, and moved into the left lane.
Carmichael then saw the car drift onto yellow line on the left side, again for about 10 seconds, before signaling a lane change and moving back into the right lane. The officer then pulled over the Honda on suspicion of drunk driver and lane straddling.
When he told both Estrada-Nava and Colin why he pulled them over, he noticed they were nervous and shaking. Reviewing the registration, he saw that neither man owned the car. He questioned them separately, then obtained their consent to a search of the car.
Paez drew from People v. Butler, a 1978 Appellate Department opinion that interprets Sec. 21658(a) to mean a driver has two separate duties under the statute—to drive as nearly as practicable within one lane, and to make all lane changes safely.
But he said that even if Estrada-Nava had a duty to both keep within a single lane and to make all moves safely, they did not violate the statute. Even though California authorities have not clarified whether a car must actually cross over the line to be in violation of the state’s lane-straddling law, he said, similar laws in other states have been interpreted as requiring just that.
He also rejected the argument that the officer had reasonable grounds to pull the car over for drunk driving. There was no pronounced weaving here, the judge said—just touching the lines.
Besides, he said, Carmichael did not conduct a field sobriety test or even ask Estrada-Nava whether he had been drinking.
“This further convinces us that Carmichael did not harbor reasonable suspicion that Estrada-Nava was driving under the influence,” he said.
Paez was joined by Senior Judge William C. Canby Jr. and Senior Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Donald P. Lay, sitting by designation.
The case is United States v. Colin, 01-50140.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company