PA Superior Court: Police Justified in Stopping Car That Left Travel Lane Four Times

Zak Goldstein Criminal Defense Lawyer

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Cephus. The court held that the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress because state troopers had probable cause to stop the defendant for motor vehicle code violations after they observed the defendant’s car crossing into another lane of travel three or four times.

Can Police Stop You For Briefly Crossing Into Another Lane of Travel?

In short, the law is not totally clear in Pennsylvania. It depends on all of the circumstances and how many times you cross the line, and courts have reached conflicting opinions when confronted with different sets of facts.

In Cephus, Pennsylvania State Troopers were traveling westbound on Route 422 in Montgomery County, PA when they saw a silver Cadillac cross the center dotted line dividing the two westbound lanes of travel. After seeing this happen at least once, they activated the dash cam on their police car. The dash cam showed that the Cadillac traveled approximately a couple hundred yards and crossed over the center line three times during that period. The officer could not remember exactly how many times he had seen the Cadillac cross the line in total. Due to the failure of the Cadillac to maintain its lane, the troopers activated their lights and sirens and pulled the car over.

After approaching the vehicle, the troopers smelled the odor of marijuana coming from the car and observed numerous air fresheners. They also claimed that the defendant, who was in the driver’s seat, was sweating and seemed nervous. Therefore, they ordered him out of the car. They then asked if they could search the car, and the defendant told them that they could. One of the troopers found a gun in the center console as well as other drug paraphernalia in the vehicle. The defendant passed out.

Gun Charges 

The troopers charged the defendant with various firearms and drug offenses, including Persons Not to Possess a Firearm (VUFA 6105), Firearms not to be Carried Without a License (VUFA 6106), Drug Paraphernalia, and Roadways Laned for Traffic.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the police officers did not have probable cause to stop him and therefore the search was the fruit of the poisonous tree from the unlawful stop. The trial court denied the  motion to suppress, finding that police had probable cause to stop the defendant for a potential violation of 75 Pa.C.S. Sec. 3309(1) of the Motor Vehicle Code.

That section provides that “A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane of travel and shall not be moved from the lane until the driver has first ascertained that the movement can be made safely.”

Because a violation of this section requires no further investigation, police must have probable cause to make a stop instead of mere reasonable suspicion. The trial court, however, held that the officers had probable cause because the vehicle had crossed the line at least four times in a relatively short period of time without any obvious explanation such as objects in the road or other hazards.

The Superior Court Appeal

After denying the motion to suppress, the court found the defendant guilty and sentenced him to 5-10 years’ incarceration. The defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, and the Superior Court affirmed the conviction. The court recognized that there have been inconsistent rulings on how police officers should interpret the statute relating to remaining in one lane of travel. For example, in Commonwealth v. Gleason, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that police did not have probable cause for a stop after seeing a motorist’s tire cross the line two times on only two occasions over a distance of approximately one quarter mile. At the same time, in Commonwealth v. Anderson, the Superior Court upheld the denial of a motion to suppress where the defendant’s vehicle straddled a double yellow line for two blocks and then stopped for an inordinate and inexplicable amount of time without being prompted to do so by traffic signs.

Despite this case seeming to be more like Commonwealth v. Gleason, the Superior Court concluded that crossing the line on at least four occasions over a short period of time provided the officers with probable cause and justified the stop. Therefore, the court upheld the denial of the motion to suppress and the defendant’s conviction. At the same time, it urged the legislature to clarify the statute so that police have additional guidance on what exactly the somewhat-vague statute requires prior to a stop. Even after this case, it likely remains the law in Pennsylvania that briefly crossing into the adjoining lane for a moment or two on one or two occasions will not support a stop, but more than that could provide police with probable cause. This statute, unfortunately, is ripe for abuse because it is very easy for a police officer to claim that a defendant left the lane of travel a couple of times, and it is almost impossible for a defendant to prove otherwise. Fortunately, many officers are now wearing body cameras or have vehicles equipped with dash cams, and this makes it more difficult for officers to fabricate the reasons for a stop.

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