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DUI TRAFFIC STOP – Illinois Supreme Court allows stop based on momentary inching across highway lane divider

DUI TRAFFIC STOP – Illinois Supreme Court decision may allow momentary inadvertent inching across highway lane divider as basis for law enforcement investigatory stop. First Paragraph: On Friday, July 6, 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court overruled the Hackett opinion of the Third District Appellate Court.People v. Hackett, 2012 IL 111781

Prior to the Supreme Court’s opinion, Hackett stood for the rule that a police officer was not justified in stopping a driver who crossed over a lane line unless it was for some reasonably appreciable distance. The Appellate Court had ruled that there are too many innocent circumstances which may cause a driver to inadvertently and momentarily inch across a highway lane divider.

In Hackett, the driver was driving in the left, or passing, lane of a four-lane highway. The officer testified that Hackett went slightly over the black and white striped line between the two northbound lanes twice, 4 or 5 seconds apart.

The Circuit Court (trial court) had held that Hackett’s driving did not give the officer reasonable grounds to stop him. The appellate court agreed.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Illinois lane usage statute does not differentiate between driving a long or short distance over the centerline, so distance is not a dispositive factor in determining whether the stop was justified.

The Court agreed that vehicle stops by police officers are subject to the fourth amendment’s reasonableness requirement. As a general matter, it held that where the police have probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred, they may stop the driver but the Court also held that the less exacting standard of a “reasonable, articulable, suspicion” that a traffic violation had occurred, will justify a traffic stop. That is, the officer’s belief need not rise to the level of probable cause to believe a traffic violation had occurred.

The Court noted that the lane usage statute creates an exception for violation because it requires driving only as near as “practicable” in one lane. Thus, whether there is “probable cause” or not to support charge of violation of the lane law statute requires a fact specific inquiry regarding, for instance, weather, road conditions, visibility, and obstacles which may be present. However, for the purpose of a traffic stop, the officer need not make all of these inquiries and rule out the exceptions – in judging a police officer’s conduct, courts should apply an objective standard, considering whether the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure justify the actions taken. It may be a fair summary of Hackett that – if there are not readily apparent circumstances showing why driving in the same lane is not practicable – the officer may stop a vehicle to inquire further into the reason for the lane deviation.

Analyzing the facts in Hackett under these standards, the Court noted that the officer observed two, not one but two, crossings over the centerline by the driver for no obvious reason, and that the officer did not recall seeing any potholes or other obstructions in the roadway which would justify the defendant moving over to the center line. The Defendant’s testimony was not strong as to whether he moved from one lane to another to avoid potholes – he said it was a possibility.

The facts of Leyendecker may be an example of what should not be held to justify a stop under the Supreme Court’s decision in Hackett. In the Leyendecker case, the appellate court held that the driver’s momentary one-foot crossing of the fog line as she maneuvered her vehicle through a left-hand curve on a hilly road with poor visibility would not cause a reasonable person to suspect that the defendant was not driving “as nearly as practicable” within her lane. People v. Leyendecker, 337 Ill. App. 3d 678, 683, 787 N.E.2d 358, 362 (2003). It is noteworthy that the Leyendecker court applied the “reasonable, articulable, suspicion” test for the stop as required by Hackett, not the probable cause standard. Mere suspicion or hunch is insufficient for a traffic stop. The suspicion must be reasonable and be based upon articulable facts which, combined with reasonable inferences, create a reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a crime. People v. Leyendecker, 337 Ill. App. 3d 678, 681-82, 787 N.E.2d 358, 360-61 (2003).

Although prosecutors will undoubtedly begin citing the Illinois Supreme Court opinion in Hackett to counter defense challenges to the traffic stop, effective Illinois DUI defense lawyers can and should argue that the Supreme Court did not countenance traffic stops where the facts suggest the officer unreasonably overreached, such as stopping for a momentary crossing of a fog or center line on a sharp curve at night.