People v. Theus, 2016 IL App (4th) 160139 (September). Episode 238 (Duration 8:47)
Car is stopped for jerking to the left when the single lane road opens up into 2 lanes.
Defendant was a passenger in a car stopped by a deputy. The deputy observed a gold colored Chevrolet Malibu traveling on the road where “it splits into two lanes.”
Over 400 grams of cocaine are found in the trunk.
Deputy testified that he saw the vehicle “make an abrupt lane change” without activating its turn signal.
The Traffic Code
The trial court found the stop was predicated on the alleged violation of section 11-804 of the Illinois Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/11-804 – When signal required).
The relevant section says…
“…(d) The electric turn signal device required in Section 12-208 of this Act must be used to indicate an intention to turn, change lanes or start from a parallel parked position…”
625 ILCS 5/11-804(d).
Thus, both parties agreed section 11-804(d) of the Vehicle Code requires a driver to use his or her turn signal when changing lanes.
Trial Court Suppresses The Drugs
After reviewing a video exhibit and a photo exhibit of the roadway in question, the court found the road is “poorly marked.”
The trial court granted the motion to suppress, finding that:
“There is virtually no warning—in the form of a sign adjacent to the roadway or markings on the pavement itself—indicating that roadway turns from one to two northbound lanes. It appears that any abrupt movement of a vehicle would most likely be attributable to the fact that the lane markings abruptly change without warning. *** The law recognizes that deviations in the movement of a vehicle may be attributable to road conditions. *** The vehicle was not turned. There was no movement made from one marked lane to another. There is no evidence suggesting that movement of the vehicle was made without reasonable safety. Under these unique circumstances the court finds that there was no duty to signal and therefore no reasonable grounds to believe that [section] 11-804 had been violated.”
Appellate Court Reverses
A police officer’s objectively reasonable mistake, whether of fact or law, may provide the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a traffic stop. See Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530 (2014).
In Gaytan, the court found a vehicle stop will not violate the fourth amendment if the officer’s mistake of law was objectively reasonable. Gaytan, 2015 IL 116223, ¶ 48.
The reviewing court overruled the trial court and found that the officer's belief that section 11-804 required the driver to signal at this juncture of the roadway was objectively reasonable under the circumstances.
Here, the detective concluded the driver committed a traffic violation for failing to signal. However, if this was mistaken it, none the less, could justify stopping the car if the interpretation was objectively reasonable.
The plain text of the statute requires a signal when changing lanes. There is no ambiguity in that requirement.
However, it does not address whether it applies to lane divisions and mergers, and thus an ambiguity arises when applying the law to the spot of the roadway. There, one lane became two lanes, requiring the driver to pick one.
The Supreme Court pointed out “an officer may ‘suddenly confront’ a situation in the field as to which the application of a statute is unclear—however clear it may later become.” Heien, 574 U.S. at ___, 135 S. Ct. at 539.
In the case sub judice, it is not at all clear whether section 11-804 of the Vehicle Code required the driver to signal here. There are no published decisions addressing the question of whether a turn signal is required when a lane divides into two lanes.
However, even if defendant is correct about section 11-804—that a turn signal is not required at this spot of Route 48—it would not render the traffic stop here illegal.
The result is the same whether the detective was right or wrong about the law. The traffic stop in this case was justified at its inception, either because the driver committed a traffic violation or because the detective made a reasonable mistake of law.
The outcome is the same either way. See also the recent case distinguishing between reasonable suspicion and probable cause. See also the case where officer gets chastised for withholding information.