Tuesday, November 22, 2011

DUI Law - Crossing the Centerline and Reasonable Suspicion for a Stop

The issue of whether crossing a lane line constitutes a basis for stopping a vehicle seems to re-raise itself multiple times each year. In State of Montana v. Cameron, --- P.3d ----, 2011 WL 5353102 (Mont.), 2011 MT 276, the Supreme Court of Montana took their view of it. Here, the defendant crossed the centerline four times in the space of five miles prior to being stopped. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, determining that while Cameron did not commit a specific traffic offense, Deputy Robinson had sufficient facts to form a particularized suspicion of wrongdoing to initiate an investigative stop. In so holding, the court relied on a prior Montana case (Weer v. State, 2010 MT 232, ¶ 7, 358 Mont. 130, 244 P.3d 311) wherein it was held, based on similar facts, that a particularized suspicion existed. Both the stop in Weer and the stop in the instant case occurred at approximately 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Moreover, just as Cameron's vehicle drifted onto the center line on four separate occasions, the officer following Weer observed Weer's vehicle “swerve twice towards the double-yellow centerline, and then, on the third instance, Weer drove onto the centerline.” Weer, ¶ 3.

On appeal, the defendant claimed that other precedent in Montana held that such conduct did not form a reasonable suspicion for stopping the vehicle. The Supreme Court responded as follows:

"Cameron maintains that the court should have relied on State v. Lafferty, 1998 MT 247, 291 Mont. 157, 967 P.2d 363, and Morris v. State, 2001 MT 13, 304 Mont. 114, 18 P.3d 1003, because, according to Cameron, they are both factually similar to his case. However, Cameron ignores the fact that this Court recently declined to rely on Lafferty and Morris as precedent because those cases utilized flawed approaches to particularized suspicion. Flynn, ¶¶ 10, 12.

"In Lafferty, an officer stopped the defendant's vehicle after observing the vehicle cross the fog line on the right side of the highway twice and drive on the fog line once. Lafferty, ¶ 4. We concluded in Lafferty that the officer lacked particularized suspicion based in part on the defendant's testimony that she merely crossed the fog line as she observed the officer's patrol car come up behind her. Lafferty, ¶ 17. In Morris, an officer stopped the defendant's vehicle after observing the vehicle drift across the line separating the eastbound lanes of traffic. The officer then observed the vehicle drift and touch the fog line on the other side of the lane. Morris, ¶ 2. We concluded in Morris that the officer lacked particularized suspicion based in part on the defendant's testimony that the road was rutted, and that his usual practice was to attempt to avoid potholes on the road. Morris ¶ 10.

"In declining to rely on Lafferty and Morris, we pointed out in Flynn that when we first adopted the particularized suspicion standard for vehicular stops, we recognized that the inquiry turned on what the officer knew, observed, inferred, and ultimately suspected, not what the defendant later testified to. Flynn, ¶ 12 (citing State v. Gopher, 193 Mont. 189, 193–94, 631 P.2d 293, 296 (1981)). To that end, we stated in Flynn that

[a] defendant's subsequent, valid explanation for conduct that objectively appeared suspicious may affect his or her ultimate liability for a charged offense, but it cannot affect the validity of a stop properly based on particularized suspicion. The particularized suspicion inquiry is a fact based assessment of the objective quantity, content and reliability of information available to the officer. An officer in the field need not consider every possible innocent explanation or legal exception before concluding that particularized suspicion exists.

Flynn, 1 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Thus, contrary to Cameron's contentions, we conclude that Lafferty and Morris cannot be applied here, and the District Court was correct not to rely on those cases, but to rely on Weer instead.

Thus, the court found that even though crossing the center line was not a violation of law per se, it did constitute sufficient reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle for possible impaired driving:

"In the instant case, Deputy Robinson testified at the hearing on Cameron's motion to suppress that in his ten years as a deputy sheriff, he has investigated around 175 DUIs. He also testified that the majority of the DUIs that he has investigated occurred on Friday and Saturday nights between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. “which are high times for driving while under the influence of alcohol.” Deputy Robinson stated that when he saw Cameron's vehicle touch the centerline the first time, he did not think it suspicious, but when the vehicle drifted towards the center line a second and third time and stayed on the centerline for 100 yards, he considered the actions dangerous since there were other cars on the road at the time.

Editor's Note: if there is one common theme that can be drawn from the plethora of cases on the subject of stops, lane lines and weaving, it appears to be as follows: While a brief momentary crossing of a lane line may not be a violation of the improper lane usage law (when there is no danger to others on the roadway) and hence may not form a reasonable basis for a vehicle stop, continuous weaving (taken in conjunction with other facts such as time of day) can be a stand-alone basis to stop a vehicle as reasonable suspicion of impaired driving.

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