Monday, July 20, 2015

Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Every Roadway There Is a Natural Course)

State v. Hutchins, 2015 VT 38

By Christopher A. Davis

The SCOV presents a question at the outset of this case: Do all turns require a turn signal? As its subsequent analysis makes clear, however, the better question in this instance is: Are all turns actually turns? The answer, says the High Court, is no.

What can I say? If you don’t want your mind blown, best watch the sky for the SCOV knowledge-bomber, and take shelter. Duck and cover, son. Duck and cover.

The catalyst for this intellectual exploration is Mr. Hutchins, who was observed by two law enforcement officers to be operating a motor vehicle on Park Street in Brandon, Vermont. He piqued their interest when they ran the plates of his vehicle—this is legal—and discovered one of the registered owners of the vehicle had a suspended license. Mr. Hutchins stopped at a stop sign at the intersection of Park Street, Country Club Road, and Smalley Road, activated his right-turn signal, and then proceeded across Country Club Road onto Smalley Road. 

Officer #1 instructed Officer #2 to pull Mr. Hutchins over. In an illuminating exchange, Officer #2 asked why, and Officer #1 said because Mr. Hutchins violated a section of Vermont’s motor vehicle code that requires motorists to put on their turn signals 100 feet before a stop sign when making a turn.

We go now to the scene.

The road curving up to the left is Park Street. The road cutting north-south is Country Club Road. The road traveling in a southeasterly direction on the right-hand side is Smalley Road. Again, Mr. Hutchins came to a stop at the stop sign where Park Street intersects Country Club Road, then traveled across Country Club Road onto Smalley Road. He was pulled over on the theory that because he turned from Park Street onto Smalley Road, he should have activated his turn signal 100 feet prior to reaching the stop sign at the intersection.

Why do we care? Because ultimately Mr. Hutchins was processed for DUI based on this stop. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from this stop, which the lower court denied. He filed a motion for the lower court to reconsider its decision, which was also denied. He then entered a conditional guilty plea for purposes of appealing the lower court’s decision on his motion (“conditional” meaning he gets to appeal an issue instead of waiving it as he probably would if he simply entered into a plea agreement), and here we are.

The SCOV notes that they are presented in this case with a question of law, as opposed to the usual mixed question of law and fact in a review of a motion to suppress evidence (whereby an appellant asks the Court to consider whether, in light of the lower court’s factual findings, suppression was or wasn’t necessary as a matter law). Mr. Hutchins presents the Court with a question of law by arguing that he has not “turned” his vehicle for purposes of the motor vehicle statute. As with all questions of law, the SCOV reviews the lower court’s decision de novo, or “for the first time,” without deference.

If an officer lacks an objectively reasonable suspicion that a motorist has violated a motor vehicle law or is engaged in criminal activity when the officer initiates an investigatory stop of the motorist, then all evidence derived from the stop must be suppressed. In this case, the only claimed purpose for the stop is a violation of the motor vehicle statute that says you need to put on a turn signal 100 feet before a turn, so the Court looks to whether the officers had an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion of this motor vehicle violation when they pulled over Mr. Hutchins.

The Court looks first to the plain language of the motor vehicle statute, and it’s clear that in order to violate the statute, a vehicle has to “turn.” So did Mr. Hutchins turn? No, he didn’t, because he did not depart from the natural course of the roadway by changing direction. In an earlier case, (State v. Harris, 2009 VT 73), the Court said that in the context of a traffic rotary (better known in these parts as a “roundabout,” a circular European-style intersection-y thing), some movements, depending on the locations of the points where you enter and exit, might be such that they could be considered continuations of the same natural course of the roadway, but other movements off of the rotary and onto a road, because of the change in direction, would likely constitute turns. In that case, the SCOV also used the example of a windy road, where you change direction frustratingly often yet never depart from that natural course.

Here, Mr. Hutchins turned his wheel, but never departed from the natural course of Park Street. But for the existence of Country Club Road, it appears Park Street would naturally curve into Smalley Road. Furthermore, even the arresting officer’s affidavit (yeah, the one who demanded the stop in the first place) characterized Mr. Hutchins’ movements as a continuation straight onto to Smalley Road, and not a turn onto Country Club Road as the officers apparently anticipated when they saw his blinker. The SCOV says that’s fine, but it’s not a violation of the statute in question to use your turn signal and then not turn. If it were, it would be easy pickin's on the left-hand lane of the Interstate.

Because Mr. Hutchins did not depart from the natural course of the road (and therefore did not “turn” within the meaning of the statute), he did not and could not have violated the statute. Therefore, all evidence obtained from the stop should have been suppressed.

So sayeth the High Court.

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