In a divided opinion delivered today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a defendant’s conviction for operating under the influence of alcohol by ruling it was proper for the police to stop him after watching him briefly cross over the fog line. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Larose.
The defendant was stopped in the middle of the night in Belchertown in Route 202, which is a two-lane highway (a single lane of travel in each direction). Immediately prior to the stop, a cop who was following the defendant saw him cross the fog line (the solid white line that separates the travel lane from the shoulder) for two to three seconds before returning to his lane. The officer pulled over the defendant and initiated an investigation that led to him being charged with operating under the influence of alcohol. The defendant filed a motion to suppress his stop, arguing he did not commit a marked lanes violation and therefore the officer did not have constitutional authority to pull him over. A superior court judge agreed and suppressed the stop (which would result in the dismissal of the case). The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court reversed, holding that the stop was constitutional. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed to hear the case and today ruled 4-3 that the defendant’s stop was constitutional.
The marked lanes statute states: “When any way has been divided into lanes, the driver of a vehicle shall so drive that the vehicle shall be entirely within a single lane, and he shall not move from the lane in which he is driving until he has first ascertained if such movement can be made with safety.” The defendant argued because the fog line does not divide lanes, its crossing cannot be the basis for a violation of the statute. Further, even if the fog line is a “marked lane,” the defendant’s crossing it was not unsafe. The Supreme Judicial Court disagreed. The Court said the plain language of the statute requires drivers to: first, stay entirely in a single lane, which doesn’t happen if they drift over the fog line into the shoulder; and second, not move from their travel lane until they have determined it is safe to do so. The defendant argued there must be proof of both elements – that he did not stay in his lane and his movement was not safe. The Court rejected this analysis, pointing out that it would allow drivers to ignore marked lanes altogether as long as their operation did not constitute unsafe driving. The Court determined, therefore, that a driver can violate the marked lanes statute by either failing to stay in his lane or by failing to determine if leaving his lane will be safe prior to making the movement. Because unintentional or accidental movements outside of a lane are always done without the driver first assessing the safety of their movements, they will always provide a basis for a police officer to stop a car. Finally, the Court pointed out that the fog line separates the travel lane from the shoulder, which constitutes a “marked lane” under the statute.
Three justices dissented. The dissent argued a driver has committed a marked lane violation only when he leaves a marked lane and the movement is unsafe. The dissent pointed out that under the majority’s definition of a marked lane violation, a driver would commit a violation if he crossed the fog line to avoid a pothole, an animal running across the street, or a bicyclist. The majority’s definition of the statute according to the dissent, may result in absurd motor vehicle stops.
A violation of the marked lanes statute is only civil in nature (with the maximum penalty being a fine). However, this case is important because a majority of OUI stops result from a police officer witnessing a marked lane violation. The definition of a marked lane violation, therefore, will have far-reaching consequences.