State v. Jones: Slight Lane Travel = Unlawful Search

On the Road: Changing lanes in an intersection may be legal — but it's not  necessarily safe – Press Enterprise

Good case. In State v. Jones, The WA Court of Appeals decided a police officer does not have reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle that crosses the fog line three times in a mile for violating the safe lane travel statute, RCW 46.61.140(1).

Anacortes Police Officer Jacqueline Richter saw Donald Jones driving within the city limits of Anacortes, Washington. As she followed Jones in her patrol car for about a mile, she observed Jones’s vehicle “pass over the fog line approximately an inch” three times, each time “correcting its position with a slow drift.” She stopped Jones and told him that she had stopped his vehicle “due to erratic lane travel.” There were no other vehicles on the roadway at the time. Jones agreed to perform field sobriety tests. There was no indication of intoxication.

Officer Sam King arrived to assist Richter. King saw a rifle in the backseat of Jones’s truck. Jones consented to a vehicle search “for the sole purpose of recovering the rifle.” A records check revealed that Jones did not have a valid driver’s license. In the course of their conversation, Jones told King that he had a felony conviction in Idaho for possession of a controlled substance. The State charged Jones with one count of Unlawful Possession of a Firearm in the Second Degree.

Jones moved to suppress the fruits of the vehicle search. Citing State v. Prado, Jones challenged the lawfulness of the stop. The trial court denied Jones’s motion. At trial he was found guilty. He appealed.

The Court of Appeals held that stopping Jones’s vehicle was unlawful under RCW 46.61.040(1) and State v. Prado. the trial court erred by not suppressing the evidence of the firearm. The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court.

The Court reasoned that a traffic stop is a seizure. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guaranties against unreasonable searches and seizures, and requires either a warrant or proof that the seizure qualifies under one of the few “‘jealously and carefully drawn'” exceptions to the warrant requirement.

Here, said the Court, there was no evidence of “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity” to support a stop and search of Jones’s vehicle. The State presented no evidence about Officer Richter’s training and experience in identifying impaired drivers. Officer Richter did not testify that she suspected Jones was impaired or that she stopped him for this reason. The State presented no evidence of dangerous driving or any other traffic infraction. Finally, the trial court did not find that Officer Richter stopped Jones because of a reasonable suspicion that he was DUI.

Because the State failed to justify its warrantless seizure of Jones, the trial court should have suppressed the evidence discovered because of that seizure.

My opinion? Good decision. I’m happy that the Court of Appeals is finally supporting its decision in State v. Prado. In that case, a police officer stopped a car that had crossed a lane divider line in an exit lane by approximately two tire widths for one second. The State charged the driver with driving under the influence of an intoxicant. The district court denied Prado’s motion to suppress, and Prado was convicted.  He appealed.

Ultimately, in deciding Prado the Court of Appeals held that “minor incursions over a lane line” do not, by themselves, constitute a sufficient basis for an investigatory stop. Also, “a vehicle crossing over a lane once for one second by two tire widths does not, without more, constitute a traffic violation justifying a stop by a police officer.”

Prado was an excellent decision in 2008. Unfortunately, Prado hasn’t been well-supported by other court decisions. Indeed, in my own practice, judges deciding suppression issues seem to have turned a blind eye to Prado decision. Hopefully, State v. Jones shall reinforce Prado and give it the respect it deserves.

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