Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I Drive the Line

After an evening out—no doubt reading books to blind shut-ins at a local nursing home—Defendant headed into Berlin from Barre on Route 302 where a Berlin Police Officer began to follow.  As the Officer noted in his later testimony, he followed Defendant for about a mile of unexceptional driving before Defendant's tires crossed the double yellow center lines on a curve in violation of Vermont's "drive to the right" law.  The Officer pulled Defendant over for this traffic violation and after detecting signs of intoxication arrested and processed Defendant for DUI. 

On a motion to suppress, the trial court focused on the Officer’s testimony, which stated that Defendant’s car crossed the center line but which could not pinpoint whether it was two-hundred feet or five feet over the center line or whether the violation occurred for three seconds or for two minutes.  Given the discrepancies in both distance and time, and the difference each version represented (one being a serious violation, the other a nominal transgression), the trial court granted the motion to suppress and dismissed the DUI charge. 

On appeal, the Court takes the opportunity to revisit its relatively extensive case law concerning the right of law enforcement officials to stop a car for any infraction of the motor vehicle code—including but not limited to loud mufflers, missing mirrors, burned out lights, or minor infractions of the “drive to the right” statute.  Therefore, whether the Officer observed Defendant crossing the line for five seconds, two minutes, or taking a drive in Merry Ole England, the resulting right to pull Defendant over was the same. 

Thus, the trial court erred in suppressing evidence of DUI since the variation in the Officer’s testimony was meaningless.  Any distance that Defendant crossed over the center line constituted a violation that authorized the Officer to pull the car over and talk to Defendant long enough to get hit by the waves of Jim Beam fumes pouring out of the car.

Justice Skoglund, joined by Justice Johnson, is not so sure.  She points out in her dissent that the trial court did not find that Defendant had crossed the yellow line but to prove that the State had presented an untrustworthy witness.  The trial court’s citation of the Officer’s varying testimony was not to prove that Defendant crossed the line, but that the Officer did not know what was going on since his testimony varied so widely.  Under the deferential standard applied to trial court findings, Justice Skoglund believed that the variation and lack of credulity in the Officer supported the motion to suppress, and that the majority had missed the boat on this all together.  Short of a third vote, however, means that this view will have to sit at the back of the opinion.

—Daniel Richardson

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