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Traffic Stops for Lane Incursions
May 4, 2015

Traffic StopAt certain times of night, officers in police departments everywhere, including here in San Juan County, look for intoxicated drivers. Of course, they look for drivers who are exhibiting outward signs of intoxication. But many impaired drivers hold it together enough to avoid appearing impaired while driving.

So officers pull over vehicles if they see any traffic infraction. Common infractions are failing to stop completely at a stop sign, speeding, a broken tail light or expired license plate registration, and failing to signal. These traffic stops can be quick. The officer convinces himself that the driver is not impaired, gives a warning, and lets the driver go. Certainly the desirability of this method of law enforcement is debatable. But right or wrong, this is what they do.

When an officer is concerned about a driver, that officer will watch the vehicle’s travel within its lane. An impaired driver may have difficulty keeping the vehicle within its lane. Consequently, on our county roads, officers will notice whenever the vehicle’s tires touch or go over the fog line on the right or the center divider on the left. Perhaps you have noticed that drivers in San Juan County sometimes do not pay close attention to these lines unless there is on-coming traffic. Can an officer stop a vehicle simply because the driver allowed the vehicle to drift into one line or the other?

There are two recent appellate decisions on this question. Both speak about State v. Prado, a 2008 decision.  In that case, the court analyzed RCW 46.61.140, which states, “A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane . . . .” The court held that “a brief incursion over the lane lines” did not constitute a failure to drive “as nearly as practicable” within the lane.

The first of the two recent decisions is State v. Huffman, decided in December of 2014. In this case, the driver drove once over the center line. She was stopped because of this and ultimately charged with driving under the influence. She argued that, under Prado, the stop was illegal because her incursion over the center line was brief. However, the Huffman court disagreed based on the wording of RCW 46.61.100, which requires driving on the right side of the road. It does not have the “nearly as practicable” language that 46.61.140 has. The Huffman court decided that RCW 46.61.100 is violated by any incursion over the center divider. It rejected the argument that RCW 46.61.140 also applies and that, reading the two statutes together, the legislature did not intend to penalize brief and safe incursions over the center line.

In this month of April 2015 has come State v. Jones. The driver in this case went over the fog line on the right three times. The Jones court held that, under the same statute analyzed in Prado, these lane incursions did not necessarily violate the law.  Whether a drive over the fog line is reason to pull over a driver depends on the circumstances at the time.

So, if you drive over the center lane, even briefly and safely, law enforcement can pull you over and write a ticket. But if you briefly touch or cross the fog line on the right, law enforcement cannot pull you over unless you did so unsafely or unless your driving leads to a reasonable suspicion that you are intoxicated.

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