The First Circuit Court of Appeals recently ducked an opportunity to clarify a common pretext for traffic stops.
A police officer got a tip that a man might have some drugs. But we can’t just go around searching cars because there might be drugs inside. Not in America. We wait for the car wheels to cross a white line, and then we search the car because there might be drugs inside.
It’s called a pretext stop. If I had driven drunk past the officer he might have let me go. He wasn’t there to enforce traffic laws. He was there to play the game the way judges say it should be played.
The trial judge understood this, writing
The court does not believe that the officer made that stop solely because he was concerned about what he believed to be a marked lane violation. […]
The court believes that Detective Reynolds’s substantial motivation for making the stop was the desire to pursue a drug investigation.
Some officers try variants on “he looked at me funny.” If you look away, you’re acting guilty. If you look at police, you’re acting guilty. Judges told police they preferred to hear about actual illegal acts.
After speeding, the marked lane violation is a favorite excuse. This happened in Braintree, Massachusetts. The law in Massachusetts says
When any way has been divided into lanes, the driver of a vehicle shall so drive that the vehicle shall be entirely within a single lane, and he shall not move from the lane in which he is driving until he has first ascertained if such movement can be made with safety.
(Contrary to Judge Stahl’s decision, the law is not a “criminal misdemeanor.” It was decriminalized in the 1980s.)
One problem is, this law was meant for roads with more than one lane in the same direction. A separate law covers crossing the centerline. But it’s typically used on a two-way, two-lane road. It’s the ticket they write if you crash into a tree and they want to write you up for something.
That aside, the dispute is whether the law prohibits unsafe lane changes or all lane changes. Under the prosecution’s theory, this clause stands on its own:
the driver of a vehicle shall so drive that the vehicle shall be entirely within a single lane
Under the defendant’s theory, the word “safety” shows the intent of the law is to prohibit only unsafe movements. There was no evidence that the car’s sideways motion was unsafe.
The court ruled, following a 2014 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, that it need not decide whether the prosecutor was right. State court precedent is inconsistent. As long it remains remains inconsistent, police can pull you over for touching the line. Your recourse is to fight the ticket.
And if you don’t get a ticket for an 89-4A violation, if they’re only pulling you over to hassle you, you have no recourse.
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