In February 2016, the Tennessee Supreme Court in two separate opinions ruled that, “It is well established that a traffic violation—however minor—creates probable cause to stop the driver of a vehicle.” See also, Cross the Fog Line 1 Time, Expect to be Stopped.
In State of Tennessee v. William Whitlow Davis, Jr., the officer turned on his blue lights and pulled the Defendant over after witnessing the Defendant cross over the double yellow center lane lines of a curvy road with the BMW’s two left wheels. The question before the Court was whether the observation of this conduct provided the officer with probable cause to seize the Defendant for violating the traffic law. For the first time ever, the Court determined the extent to which the applicable law proscribes a motorist from crossing a center lane line while driving.
The applicable law is Tennessee Code Annotated (T.C.A.) § 55-8-115(a), which states, “[u]pon all roadways of sufficient width a vehicle shall be driven upon the right half of the roadway,” unless one of 4 exceptions exists. Based on this law, the Supreme Court construed Section 115 as “creating an offense that is committed upon a vehicle crossing the center lane line(s) of a roadway on even one occasion when none of the four delineated exceptions applies. Therefore, a police officer who observes a motorist violating Section 115 will have probable cause to turn on his blue lights and stop the motorist.” The Court recognized that “Section 115 criminalizes a common driving infraction and provides police officers with a great deal of discretion in determining whether to initiate a traffic stop. Indeed, in a case arising from the traffic stop of a driver in Nebraska, the arresting officer testified that drivers cross lane lines ‘all the time.'” The Court noted that its purpose was to interpret the law, not to second-guess the policy decisions of the Tennessee legislature.
Unfortunately, the Court was correct in its interpretation of this particular law. But there is enough gray area in other statutes to have reached a decision tot he contrary. The only real way to resolve this problem is to have the legislature re-write this law to allow one to drive over the center line when such action may be accomplished safely. This language is already in place in T.C.A. § 55-8-123, which provides in pertinent part: “A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from that lane until the driver has first ascertained that the movement can be made with safety[.]”
Nonetheless, the Court held that the prosecutor could select which of the traffic laws to pursue against the defendant. Accordingly, the DUI conviction was affirmed.
About the Author: Steven Oberman has been licensed in Tennessee since 1980, and successfully defended over 2,500 DUI defendants. Among the many honors bestowed upon him, Steve served as Dean of the National College for DUI Defense, Inc. (NCDD) and currently serves as chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers DUI Committee. Steve was the first lawyer in Tennessee to be Board Certified as a DUI Defense Specialist by the NCDD.
He is the author of DUI: The Crime & Consequences in Tennessee, updated annually since 1991 (Thomson-West), and co-author with Lawrence Taylor of the national treatise, Drunk Driving Defense, 7th edition (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen). Steve has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee Law School since 1993 and has received a number of prestigious awards for his faculty contributions. He is a popular international speaker, having spoken at legal seminars in 30 states, the District of Columbia and three foreign countries.
If you would like to contact the author, please visit: http://www.tndui.com