Two weeks ago (two weeks prior to this blog date), the Washington Court of Appeals, Division Three dismissed a DUI case based upon a stop predicated upon a driver’s failure to activate a signal once in a designated turn lane. (As a point of clarification the Court of Appeals is divided up into three divisions based upon geography. East of Interstate 90 is Division 3, South of the intersection of 405 and 5 is Division 2, and north of that intersection is Division 1. Each Division is binding upon its geographical lower Courts.).
The decision is significant in the DUI world because the large majority of DUI cases begin with a minor traffic violation/s allegation/s. These are things like, a failure to signal, expired tabs, speed over the limit, turning into the wrong lane at an intersection, and the list of minor infractions that are not direct evidence of DUI go on.
DUI cases rarely involve a stop because the person is driving poorly, and unlike some states roadblocks are not permitted. So DUI cases typically begin with an officer seeing some form of traffic infraction that justifies the seizure of the vehicle and the occupants. This is because the Washington State Constitution prohibits a seizure of a car unless there is “authority of law.” The US Constitution, only requires “reasonable suspicion’ and thus the extra protection afforded by our Constitution requires seizures predicated on the law. In this recent case, the seizure was based upon a failure of the driver to use his turn signal when he was in a designated turn lane. Its always been an interesting question to me as to why a person needs to signal when in a designated lane, and Division 3 does a very good job of explaining this scenario. But the lower courts analyses is significant also.
The District Court reasoned:
Based upon the evidence presented, there was insufficient time and distance for the Defendant to comply with the signal statute while executing the lane change to enter the dedicated left turn lane at the intersection of Clearwater Ave. and SR 395. The Defendant complied with the signal statute as best he could and due to the impossibility to comply with the signal statutes requirement of signaling for 100 feet prior to making a lane change the Defendant cannot be in violation of said provision when it was impossible to comply with such. The intent of turn signals is to notify other drive[r]s where the Defendant was intending to travel. Trooper Acheson’s testimony confirmed that not only did he kn[o]w where the Defendant intended to travel but in fact the Defendant did travel in the direction Trooper Acheson suspected he would go and[,] therefore, [t]he Defendant wasn’t required to re-indicate the direction he was turning from the dedicated left turn lane at the intersection of east bound Clearwater Ave. and north bound SR 395 as the Defendant had already signaled his intent to enter that lane prior to entering it.
Consequently, the district court concluded that, because Brown violated no traffic law, Trooper Acheson lacked probable cause to initiate the traffic stop. The district court suppressed all evidence gained from the stop and thereafter dismissed the prosecution. The State of Washington appealed the dismissal to the superior court. The superior court adopted the district court’s findings of fact and even so, the Superior Court held that the district court erred when suppressing the evidence of intoxication gathered after the traffic stop. According to the superior court:
Defendant David Brown violated RCW 46.61.305(2), which requires a continuous signal of one’s intent to turn during the last one hundred feet before turning left. Because Trooper Mason Acheson observed Brown’s failure to continuously signal before turning left onto the highway, Acheson gained reasonable suspicion of a traffic infraction.
The Superior Court then remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings, meaning they reversed the dismissal and re-started the prosecution. Mr. Brown sought discretionary review of the higher court, Division 3, and Division 3 granted review. As a result, the Justices of the Court reviewed the facts and procedures below and reasoned as follows:
When interpreting statutory provisions, this court primarily seeks to effectuate the intent of the legislature. State v. Sullivan, 143 Wn.2d 162, 174-75, 19 P.3d 1012 (2001). In attempting to discern the legislative intent behind RCW 46.61.305, at least within the context of this appeal, we first review the history behind the traffic signal statute. Second, we examine case law from other jurisdictions that interprets the meaning of “when required” contained in code provisions similar to that of Washington’s RCW 46.61.305. Third, we parse the wording of RCW 46.61.305. We cannot ignore the words “when required,” found in RCW 46.61.305(2). The legislature’s decision to retain the words “when required” in the statute suggests some circumstances exist, during which a turn signal is not required.
Given that vehicular turns are often made in the vicinity of other traffic, the public safety requirement of RCW 46.61.305(1) contemplates a general requirement that a driver use a turn signal prior to changing the direction of travel. Because public safety is the only true requirement that can be gleaned from RCW 46.61.305(1), we hold that a turn signal is only “required” as contemplated by subsection 2 when public safety is implicated, as indicated in subsection 1. In safety-related circumstances, a turn signal must “be given continuously during not less than the last one hundred feet traveled by the vehicle before turning.” RCW 46.61.305(2). However, if a left- or right-hand turn can be made safely without the use of a signal, no signal is required.
The facts on appeal establish that no traffic, other than the trailing state trooper, was on the roadway when David Brown used a designated left-hand turn lane to travel from Clearwater Avenue onto Highway 395. His execution of a turn without signaling caused no possible concern for public safety. Given this circumstance, Brown’s failure to David Brown relies on article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution, in addition to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Washington Supreme Court has never incorporated an officer’s innocent mistake of fact or good faith into the reasonable suspicion analysis for purposes of the state constitution.
As a consequence, the Court has taken the issue down to the "bones and intention" of the statute. The statue was internally inconsistent and thus left it open to interpretation and that means safety is the goal of signaling. Since the Defendant was in a dedicated turn lane, could not possibly comply with the 100 foot rule, no other traffic was on the road and the trooper knew where he was going based on the fact Defendant Driver Brown was in a dedicated turn lane, there was no violation of the signal statute. The case was then dismissed due to an unlawful seizure. The question now is will the government appeal? If they do and the Supreme Court accepts, the State may have triggered a process where the Statute is interpreted by the Supreme Court. If so, and if they agree with the trial Court and Division 3, then any case pending based on a this kind of stop could be dismissed if this kind of stop is the sole basis of the seizure. If the Supremes do accept review, I will be writing on that then.