1/2/2020Virginia Court Rejects Implausible Interpretation Of Traffic Law
Virginia Court of Appeals throws out case against motorist accused of crossing a solid white line while signaling.
The Virginia Court of Appeals on Friday ruled that police may not pull over motorists merely for crossing over a single, solid white line at an intersection. Eric Cherron Jones crossed one of those lines in Hampton Beach on April 8, 2017 while appropriately using his turn signal. A three-judge panel found it absurd for Hampton Police Officer M. Brown to think that this could be a crime.
The stop, which was recorded by a dashboard camera, led to the discovery of drugs, but the appellate court last week was tasked only with determining whether the initial stop was valid. In making judgments like that, courts give police officers a great deal of leeway in the justifications given for a stop. Under the US Supreme Court's Heien precedent, it is enough to come up with any explanation for the stop as long as the interpretation of the law is plausible (view case). Even so, this leeway has limits.
"A mistake of law is not reasonable, and will not justify a stop, where the relevant statutes are not ambiguous," Judge Richard Y. Atlee Jr wrote for the appellate court. "Here, there is no ambiguity or conflict in the statutes that would justify the officer's mistake of law."
Nothing in the Virginia Code, the court pointed out, prohibits anyone from crossing a single, solid white line. Double yellow or double white lines, on the other hand, may not be crossed. The judges slammed Officer Brown for implying otherwise.
"His mistake of law was not reasonable because the statute pertaining to the lane markings clearly and unambiguously did not prohibit crossing a single, solid white line," Judge Atlee wrote. "The statute was not new or recently amended. Thus, there is no explanation for the officer's mistake other than inadequate study of the laws. We conclude that a reasonably well trained officer would have known that the seizure of Jones was illegal."
As a result of the misconduct, the court threw out the evidence against Jones. He had received a three-year suspended sentence with five years of probation and a $904 fine.
A copy of the ruling is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.