The Police Stop: A Quandary
Most of us do not want a police state where government officials or police can simply stop you and ask you for your “papers” for no reason. Yet there is also that righteous indignation about those who “get off” “scot-free” because of “technicalities.” Consider this tension in the context of vehicle stops for minor technicalities. On one hand, no one wants to be stopped on their way to work for failing to follow a perfect vector down the road. On the other hand, we do not want our spouses, children, and friends to be put in danger on the roadway.
Years ago Division One of the Court of Appeals issued what became a somewhat controversial opinion in State v. Prado. You can read more about Prado here or review the opinion in full here. In short, the case concerned a driver who drove across an eight-inch white line by two tire widths while exiting the freeway. The driver was stopped for violating RCW 46.61.140(1) which requires vehicles to be driven “as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane…”
After the stop the driver was charged with DUI. The Court of Appeals ultimately held that the stop was unlawful. It reasoned that the language “as nearly as practicable” does not impose strict liability for minor incursions over lane lines. Ultimately, all evidence following the stop was suppressed. As a result of this “technicality” the charge of driving under the influence against the driver was dismissed.
Prosecutors interpreted Prado as a narrow ruling. The prosecution would argue that minor distinctions would render Prado inapplicable. For example, there is the argument that Prado does not apply to cases that concern more than one incursion over a lane line. Or the argument that even one incursion that is more than two tire widths renders Prado inapplicable. Defense attorneys on the other hand would argue that the Prado holding was broad and not limited to its facts based on language contained in the opinion itself as well as persuasive authority the Prado court relied on.
Both sides of the argument would oftentimes pose challenges for Judges who have a duty to apply the law correctly, but also want justice to be served. After all, it might be difficult for any judge to let someone off “scot free” who turned out to be sloppy drunk behind the wheel or in fact committed some other crime.
But it can happen. In some cases the law might require it.
Recently, on April 6, 2015, Division One of the Court of Appeals provided more clarification concerning Prado. In State v. Jones, an Anacortes police officer noticed the vehicle she was following passed over the fog line by approximately an inch three times. Each time the vehicle corrected its position with a slow drift. The officer pulled the vehicle over as a result of these observations. The driver was sober, but the police observed a rifle. The driver turned out to be a convicted felon. Accordingly, he was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm.
The driver argued he was subject to an illegal stop under Prado. The state predictably argued that Prado concerned an extremely brief transgression distinct from three incursions. The trial court denied the driver’s motion to suppress based on this argument. On appeal, the court of appeals held the stop was unlawful and reversed. The court explained that the Prado decision did not depend on the fact the driver crossed the lane line once. It clarified that a totality of circumstances analysis applies. Factors such as the presence of other traffic and the danger posed to others should be considered.
But the Jones opinion left open some issues that trial courts will likely continue to wrestle with. In Jones, the prosecution did not produce any evidence that suggested the officer’s training and experience enabled her to suspect driving under the influence. The officer did not testify that she suspected the driver was impaired. The opinion seems to suggest that training and experience in identifying impaired drivers should be considered in evaluating the totality of the circumstances and might tip the scales against granting a motion to suppress. There are a variety of good arguments that defense lawyers can make in response to such a position. However, trial courts will likely continue to wrestle with Prado and its new progeny regardless of the recent clarification. There is no bright line rule in this area.
Think about it for yourself.
Next time you are driving, pay attention to the vehicle in front of you as well as your own position on the road. Do you always remain strictly between the lines? Should officers be able to pull you over for one, two, or three incursions over the fog line? Should officers be able to stop anyone for no reason at all? Do you believe that laws (e.g. Prado and Jones) are immoral or wrong because they may require someone who was actually committing a crime to get off scot-free? Post to Facebook and tell us what you think.
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