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Massachusetts SJC upholds stop for marked lanes violation based on insignificant infraction

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently reviewed Commonwealth v. Larose to answer whether it was reasonable, and therefore valid, for a police officer to stop the defendant’s motor vehicle for failing to drive entirely within a marked traffic lane.

The defendant was traveling during the early morning hours on Route 202, a two-lane highway with a single lane of travel in each direction, when the defendant, who was traveling directly in front of the officer, crossed the right-side fog line (the white line on the right-hand side of a road that separates the driving lane from the shoulder), one time for two to three seconds as shown by the officer’s dashboard camera.

After subsequent observations and further inquiries, the defendant was charged with an OUI and marked lanes violation.

Before trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress “all evidence related to the illegal seizure” on the grounds that the defendant had not violated the marked lanes statute, and therefore, the stop of his motor vehicle was not reasonable.  The defendant argued that the stop was conducted “without probable cause” and “without there having been a traffic violation and without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity,” and therefore moved to suppress the evidence gathered as a result of the stop which led to the defendant being charged with an OUI.

The marked lanes statute provides in pertinent part:

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.

The motion judge concluded that “crossing a fog line one time for a few seconds does not constitute a marked lane violation” reasoning that a “fog line does not serve to divide lanes,” and “even if the fog line is a marked lane for the purposes of the statute, there is no indication…that the defendant’s crossing the fog line was unsafe” and allowed the motion.

The Appeals Court reversed the motion judge’s opinion, and the SJC granted defendant’s request for further review.

A police stop of a moving vehicle constitutes a seizure, and therefore, must be reasonable to be constitutionally valid.  The SJC has consistently held that “a stop is reasonable, and therefore, constitutional, where an officer has observed a traffic infraction and, as a result, has actual cause to believe that the driver violated an applicable motor vehicle law.”  The SJC has applied this test, also known as the authorization test, “without regard for the gravity or magnitude of the perceived violation,” and has “maintained this bright-line test despite numerous challenges.”

The SJC remarked that “permitting police to conduct these types of stops promotes compliance with our motor vehicle laws and serves the significant government interest of ensuring public safety on our roadways.”

As the SJC had never explicitly addressed whether crossing a fog line is a marked lanes violation, the SJC had to presume that “the Legislature intended ‘what the words of the statute say.’”

In doing so, the SJC rejected the defendant’s argument and motion judge’s reasoning that the marked lanes statute prohibits unsafe movements only.  The SJC reasoned that this position would have the “undesirable effect of affording drivers unfettered discretion to ignore lane markings so long as they do not in fact make unsafe movements.”

The SJC also rejected the defendant’s argument that the SJC’s holding would give “carte blanche to stop almost every car on the road” leading to a deluge of pretextual stops for innocuous traffic violations reasoning that officers are legally entitled to use discretion in issuing traffic citations.

The SJC subsequently vacated the defendant’s motion to suppress finding that “the observing police officer had sufficient reason to stop the defendant for a marked lanes violation.”

Impact of the Court’s decision

 The Court’s decision is unfortunate misinterpretation of a statute that will give officer’s too much discretion to stop any driver.  Drivers move out of the lanes for many reasons.  The SJC should not have reversed the motion judge who listened to the testimony of the officer and that differed from the video evidence.  The SJC essentially reviewed the case de novo because it was video evidence and has been holding that if the evidence is based on documents or video it can review the evidence just as the motion judge. 

In this case, there was additional testimony that should have received deference in the standard for review.  Further, this strict interpretation of the statute differs from many other states that have language in their statute saying that someone has to drive as nearly as practical within the marked lanes.  

This case would not have set a dangerous precedent if the court decided with the defendant.  It was a very limited factual scenario where you had video evidence documenting that the lane violation was very brief.  Police officers are capable of differentiating between brief deviation and someone driving dangerously.  The majority acknowledged that when it said that it does not expect officers to make a traffic stop for every literally violation of the traffic laws.  Further, the SJC ignored the normal rule when interpreting statutes to construe any ambiguity in a criminal statute in favor of the defendant. The SJC decision increase the danger of selective enforcement of traffic laws and is contrary to a common sense interpretation of the statute. 

 

To learn more about Massachusetts OUI laws you can visit Attorney DelSignore website which features resources for lawyers and answers countless questions about OUI defense.

You can also read the SJC decision in Larose by following this link.  

 

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