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IGNORANCE OF THE LAW IS NO EXCUSE … EVEN IF YOU’RE THE POLICE.

The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Slattery, No. 1330 MDA 2015 (May 13, 2016), holding that because the trooper incorrectly believed that the vehicle code required a driver to signal at least 100 feet before changing lanes, there was no probable cause to justify the stop of Slattery’s vehicle.

FACTS

Trooper Panchik initiated a traffic stop of Slattery’s Dodge Durango after he observed the vehicle make a lane change without signaling at least one hundred feet prior to making that lane change. On cross-examination, the trooper testified that “just as Slattery started to move over to the other lane or just prior to moving over,” Slattery’s blinker was activated. Trooper Panchik testified that Slattery was traveling less than 35 m.p.h. at the time he activated his signal to change lanes.

Slattery filed a motion to suppress evidence, claiming that the trooper did not have either reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop his vehicle. After a hearing, where Trooper Panchik was the sole witness, the court denied the motion and the case went to trial by Judge.

After the bench trial, Slattery was convicted of driving while operating privilege is suspended/revoked and failing to signal. He thereafter filed this appeal.

ISSUES

Did the trial court err in denying Slattery’s motion to suppress evidence by ignoring the plain meaning of 75 Pa.C.S. § 3334(a) wherein “moving from one traffic lane to another” has no minimum distance requirement to activate an appropriate signal before changing lanes?

Did the trial court err in denying Slattery’s motion to suppress evidence by finding that the “100 foot rule” of 75 Pa.C.S. § 3334(b) applies to turning as well as “moving from one traffic lane to another” in subsection (a) when the plain meaning limits its application solely to “turning right or left” in subsection (b).

HOLDING

The trial court’s factual findings were not supported in the record and its legal conclusions were in error. The trial court’s decision was therefore reversed and the case remanded for a new trial.

REASONING

Generally speaking, if the alleged basis of a vehicular stop is to determine whether there has been compliance with the Commonwealth’s vehicle code, it is incumbent upon the officer to articulate specific facts possessed by him, at the time of the questioned stop, which would provide probable cause to believe that the vehicle or the driver was in violation of some provision of the code. However, if an officer stops a vehicle for the purpose of obtaining necessary information to enforce the provisions of the code, the stop need only be based on reasonable suspicion that a violation of the code has occurred.

In the instant case, Trooper Panchik initiated a traffic stop of Slattery’s Dodge Durango after he observed the vehicle make a lane change without signaling at least one hundred feet prior to making that lane change. This stop required probable cause that Slattery’s vehicle or Slattery was in violation of some provision of the vehicle code.

Section 3334(a) of the vehicle code provides that a person shall not move from a traffic lane to another or turn a vehicle without appropriately signaling of his or her attention to turn. Further, it provides that if the given vehicle is travelling less than 35 m.p.h., the driver shall appropriately signal “continuously during not less than the last 100 feet traveled by the vehicle before turning.

The Superior Court concluded that “before turning” means before a vehicle makes a turn onto another roadway, not before a person changes lanes. Therefore, because Trooper Panchik testified that Slattery appropriately activated his signal prior to changing lanes, the trooper did not have probable cause to believe that Slattery had violated the general rule for signaling found in section 3334(a).

http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/J-A06030-16o%20-%201026589557056221.pdf?cb=1

As an added bonus, see Must Officers Be Perfect?: Mistakes of Law and Mistakes of Fact during Traffic Stops, DePaul Law Review, Volume 62 Issue 4 Summer 2013

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