Can A Lane Change Lead To A Felony Drunk Driving Conviction?
Drunk driving arrests rarely start out that way. The more typical scenario is that a police officer initiates a “routine” traffic stop after observing a possible infraction. During the stop, the officer then develops a suspicion the driver may be drunk, which may lead to probable cause justifying an arrest. This entire chain of events, however, depends on the officer having a legitimate “reasonable suspicion” that there was a traffic violation in the first place.
Texas Appeals Court Tosses DWI Conviction
You might assume that officers never make mistakes when it comes to traffic violations and that judges simply rubber stamp a finding of reasonable suspicion. But that is not always the case. Take this recent decision from the Texas Third District Court of Appeals, Daniel v. State. In this case, the appellate court actually threw out a felony drunk driving conviction after determining the arresting officer lacked a proper foundation to initiate a traffic stop of the defendant.
Here is what took place. The officer observed the defendant’s vehicle stopped at an intersection with two left-turn lanes. The defendant was in the outer turn lane. He then made a left turn, and in doing so the officer claimed that “approximately half the vehicle” crossed the dotted-white line separating the two turn lanes. After making the turn, the officer said the defendant crossed the line dividing the two westbound lanes a couple of times.
On this basis alone, the officer initiated a traffic stop. Specifically, the officer cited the defendant for violating Section 546.060(a) of the Texas Transportation Code. This section states that when driving on a road divided into two or more lanes, the driver must “drive as nearly as practical entirely within a single lane” and “may not move from the lane unless that movement can be made safely.”
As you probably guessed, during the stop the officer observed signs the defendant was intoxicated. This ultimately led to the defendant’s arrest and felony charge. The trial court sentenced the defendant to four years probation.
On appeal, the Fourth District said the trial court erred in not suppressing all of the evidence gathered during the traffic stop–which is to say, all of the prosecution’s evidence. As the appellate court read the statute, merely failing to stay within one lane was not a violation of Section 546.060(a) unless such movement was also “not safe or [was] not made safely.” Put another way, the traffic offense is “moving out of a marked lane when it is not safe to do so.” (The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has suggested there is a separate offense for moving out of a marked lane alone, but the Fourth District noted that opinion was not supported by a majority of the higher court and thus not binding precedent.)
Since the officer in this case did not observe the defendant moving unsafely, there was no basis for the traffic stop. The Fourth District therefore reversed the defendant’s conviction.
Contact Texas Criminal Defense Attorney Keith B. French Today
What is and is not considered “reasonable suspicion” in a drunk driving prosecution often depends on the specific facts of a case. That is why it is crucial to work with an experienced Pearland DWI/DUI lawyer if you are facing such charges. Contact Keith B. French Law, PLLC, today to schedule a free consultation.