State v. Huffman: Crossing the Centerline = DUI Arrest

Division I of the WA Court of Appeals decided that a single crossing of the centerline is sufficient to justify a traffic stop for a violation of RCW 46.61.100 Keep Right Except When Passing.

In State v. Huffman, defendant Sarah Huffman was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) after being pulled over for weaving in her lane, jerking back from the centerline and crossing the centerline on State Route 9. The two-mile section of the roadway is relatively straight, with a painted yellow line in the center that is at times a double solid line.

Police reports indicate the Trooper Eberle saw Huffman’s vehicle touch the centerline three times, each time immediately jerking back to the right side of the road. On the fourth occasion, the vehicle crossed the centerline by approximately one full tire width. Trooper Eberle did not recall any oncoming traffic at the time the vehicle crossed over the centerline. He stopped the vehicle and subsequently arrested the driver, appellant Sarah Huffman, for driving under the influence.

Huffman claimed the stop was unlawful because her single crossing of the centerline did not give rise to reasonable, articulable suspicion that she committed a traffic infraction under RCW 46.61.100. The district court agreed and granted her motion to suppress all evidence obtained after the stop. On appeal, the superior court reversed, concluding the stop was valid because Huffman committed a traffic infraction by crossing the centerline in violation of RCW 46.61.100.

Huffman appealed her case to Division I of the WA Court of Appeals. She argued that under State v. Prado, and its interpretation of RCW 46.61.140 Driving on Roadways Laned For Traffic, her momentary crossing of the centerline was not a traffic infraction and thus, there was no lawful basis for the stop.

Some background on RCW 46.61.140 and State v. Prado is necessary. In Prado, a law enforcement officer witnessed Mr. Tonelli-Prado’s vehicle cross an eight-inch white dividing the exit lane from the adjacent lane by two tire widths for one second. The Trooper pulled over Prado’s vehicle for violating RCW 46.61.140. This traffic statute addresses the safe changing of lanes (right or left or turn) and the use of a center lane, but does not mention a centerline. RCW 46.61.140(1) states:

Whenever any roadway has been divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic the following rules in addition to all others consistent herewith shall apply: (1) 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.

The trial court found that that Prado’s motion to suppress was not appropriate because the vehicle actually crossed the lane line, rather than merely touching the lane line. Upon review, however, the Superior Court found that under a totality of the circumstances argument, that a brief incursion not resulting in a “safety problem” was not sufficient grounds to pull over the vehicle. The Prosecutor appealed the ruling of the Superior Court to Division I Court of Appeals. On appeal, Division I upheld the Superior Court and ruled that a vehicle crossing over the line for one second by two tire widths on an exit lane does not justify a belief that the vehicle was operated unlawfully under RCW 46.61.140(1).

In light of this background, Division I granted Huffman’s appeal to decide whether (1) State v. Prado applies and (2) whether the “as nearly as practicable” language of RCW 46.61.140 also applies to RCW 46.61.100.

The Court decided “No,” and “No.” The plain reading of the two statutes and their different objectives leads one to believe that the “nearly as practicable” qualifying language from RCW 46.61.140(1) does NOT apply to RCW 46.61.100. “Our decision in Prado is limited to its facts which involved only a violation of RCW 46.61.140, not RCW 46.61.100. Because it is undisputed that Huffman crossed the centerline, the officer was justified in stopping her to investigate a violation of RCW 46.61.100.” Based on that, the Court of Appeals vacated and reversed the trial court’s orders suppressing all evidence and dismissing the prosecution. The Court also reinstated the charges against Huffman and remanded this matter back to the district court for trial.

My opinion? The Huffman opinion is an attempt to limit the scope and applicability of Prado’s reasoning to RCW 46.61.140. Ever since Prado was decided 7 years ago, the Prosecutors and Judges in district courts have rallied against it. Prado took too much discretionary power out of the hands of police officers who follow and pull over motorists suspected of DUI. Here, the Court of Appeals “stopped the insanity” of Prado and limit its reasoning to violations of RCW 46.61.140 only.

Unfortunately, a pendular swing in one direction often gives momentum to a pendular swing in the opposite direction. More specifically, I fear that the reasoning of Huffman might be applicable to violations of RCW 46.61.670 Driving With Wheels Off Roadway. The statute says the following:

It shall be unlawful to operate or drive any vehicle or combination of vehicles over or along any pavement or gravel or crushed rock surface on a public highway with one wheel or all of the wheels off the roadway thereof, except as permitted by RCW 46.61.428 or for the purpose of stopping off such roadway, or having stopped thereat, for proceeding back onto the pavement, gravel or crushed rock surface thereof.

Therefore – and worst-case scenario – under Huffman, a motorist who briefly/unlawfully drives on a road with one or more wheels off the roadway can be pulled over and investigated for DUI.

Is this fair?