Monday, August 1, 2016

Blinded by the Light

State v. Howard, 2016 VT 49

By Elizabeth Kruska

How many times has this happened to you? You’re driving at night. It’s dark. You’re minding your own business and paying attention to where you need to go. Then, all of a sudden, some jackpot decides he’s going to ride up on your bumper and tailgate you for what feels like forever. Oh, and of course, said jackpot: (a) has a vehicle that sits higher than yours, so the headlights shine directly onto your mirror; or (b) has his highbeams on; or (c) both. This really grinds my gears.

It also bothered Mr. Stephen Howard, who had the same situation happen a couple summers ago. The only way he could figure to get the lights out of his eyes was to move over. This caught the attention of a Trooper, who pulled over Mr. Howard, assuming him to be impaired. Mr. Howard ultimately got charged with a DUI, but challenged the reason he was stopped, saying that the Trooper really didn’t have a good reason to stop him. The trial court held a hearing, and agreed the Trooper didn’t have a legitimate reason for the stop. The State appeals.

SCOV agrees with the State, and reverses and remands the matter.

At the motion hearing, Mr. Howard actually testified and said that he had to move his car because he was blinded by the other driver. He said that he went over the center line so he could get away from the reflection from the lights. The Trooper testified, but couldn’t say whether the vehicle behind Mr. Howard had its highbeams on or not. The trial court felt it could not make a finding that there was a motor vehicle violation based on the testimony it heard.

SCOV says the trial court was in the wrong, and said there was a reasonable and articulable suspicion for the Trooper to make a traffic stop. Heck, SCOV even says that the way the trial court described the situation, it conceded that there was a traffic violation.

It’s well-settled law that a traffic stop is a seizure. It’s also well-settled law that unreasonable seizures are contrary to the Fourth Amendment. A police officer can’t make a traffic stop just for squeals and giggles—there has to be a reasonable and articulable suspicion of wrongdoing to support the stop. The police don’t actually have to know that at the moment of the suspicion that there was wrongdoing, there just has to be a reasonable suspicion of it. If the officer said, “That guy looked a little shifty when he went by,” that isn’t enough. If the officer said, “That guy was driving on the wrong side of the road,” that probably is enough.

SCOV says that a reasonable suspicion for even a minor traffic violation is enough suspicion to make a traffic stop. Here, because Mr. Howard crossed the centerline and went onto the other side where oncoming traffic flows. There are some situations where it is permissible to cross the centerline, but this wasn’t one of them. This doesn’t mean Mr. Howard wasn’t trying to be safe, and it doesn’t mean that the guy driving behind him wasn’t being a jerk with the headlights, it just means the Trooper was justified in making the stop.

In DUI cases, evidence that is gathered after a traffic stop is allowed to be admitted if a driver committed some sort of violation or that based on the totality of the circumstances, the police believed the driver was under the influence.

Here, the Trooper believed there was a legitimate reason to make a stop when he saw Mr. Howard’s car cross the centerline. The trial court’s rationale that he crossed the line, but that wasn’t a traffic violation doesn’t square in the eyes of SCOV. Mr. Howard’s reason—the fact that the headlights were blinding him, was not something that falls within a statutory exception, so the reason for the stop was fine. I suppose if the facts were different—that there was a big rock in the lane and Mr. Howard had to go into the left lane to avoid hitting the rock, then this would be a different conversation. But that wasn’t the case.

SCOV drops a few sentences into paragraph 7, and these are the sentences many of us have been awaiting for a very long time. SCOV favorably cites some other states’ cases indicating that a car touching the center line is not a traffic violation. Going over the line is. Lots of defense attorneys have been arguing for years that the centerline is part of the lane, but never had anything to back it up. I once argued to a judge that Vermont should follow the rules of tennis versus the rules of basketball for what’s in or out as far as touching the line is concerned. Unfortunately, the judge in question wasn’t necessarily up on the rules of either sport and said something like, “I’m not sure what your argument is, exactly, but I’m saying it’s not okay to touch the center line.” SCOV ultimately goes with tennis and says touching the center line is in the lane, and this alone is not enough for a traffic stop.

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