Look Here: 4th Amendment Musings

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Traffic Stops Without a Left Turn Signal
Thursday, March 9th, 2017
Traffic Stops Without a Left Turn Signal

As we all know, there are instances when driving that individuals in the State of Texas actually do not use their signals. This includes at a time when a person of common intelligence can see that a turn will occur—e.g., in a center turn lane, in turn-only lanes, at a “T” intersection, etc. The Court of Criminal Appeals has held that merging into a single lane did not require the use of a signal. Mehaffey v. State, 364 S.W.3d 908, 913 (Tex. Crim. App. 2012)(“a signal is required only to indicate an ‘intention to turn, change lanes, or start from a parked position,’ no signal is required when two lanes become one”). This finding is based upon the Court of Criminal Appeals’ interpretation of Texas Transportation Code § 545.104(a). The federal courts are also inclined to hold that use of a signal does not involve lane changes. See United States v. Alvarado-Zarza, 782 F.3d 246, 250 (5th Cir. 2015)(requirement that driver signal turn for at least 100 feet before turn applies only to turns, not to lane changes).

Knowing this, when a driver is faced with a similar situation, such as a dedicated left turn lane or right-turn-only lane, one would think that a signal would not be required. This is not the case. In Holmquist v. State, No. 05-13-01388-CR (Dallas 2015)(not designated for publication), the officer observed the defendant stopped at an intersection in a left-turn-only lane awaiting the signal light’s change. Both the defendant and the vehicle in front of defendant in the left-turn-only lane failed to signal their intention to make the left turn. When the traffic light changed, with the defendant and the vehicle in front of him making their unsignaled left turns, the officer pulled the defendant over. Holmquist filed a motion to suppress, which was denied. Holmquist’s argument in the suppression hearing was that the left-turn-only traffic control device at the intersection overrode the requirement that he signal his intention to turn. The Dallas court found otherwise, basing, in part, their opinion on Wehring v. State, 276 S.W.3d 666, 670 (Tex.App.—Texarkana 2008, no pet.), in finding against Holmquist. Wehring involved a DWI defendant attempting to suppress the stop based upon his failure to use a turn signal in right-turn-only lane. The key language in Wehring states:

        The plain language of the statute requires the driver to signal for a turn. It does not include exceptions for those situations in which there is only one direction to turn. We cannot say that requiring the use of a turn signal while entering a turn-only lane and making the turn would lead to absurd results. See Williams v. State, No. 05-02-00314-CR, 2002 WL 31521373, at *2 (Tex.App.—Dallas Nov. 14, 2002, no pet.)(holding Section 545.105 requires driver use turn signal in turn-only lane). It has been held that Section 545.104 provides a “ bright-line rule by which drivers of motor vehicle and police officers charged with enforcing the laws may operate. If a turn is made from one street onto another, a signal is required.” Id. (citing Krug v. State, 86 S.W.3d 764, 767 (Tex.App.—El Paso 2002, no pet.)) (Section 545.104 applies anytime turn made and not limited to situations in which driver turns at intersections or turning around near curve or grade.).

It seems that while these arguments are not necessarily being found by the appellate courts to have merit, there is in fact a conflict within the Transportation Code that should be brought forward. Texas Transportation Code § 544.004 states:

(a)   The operator of a vehicle or streetcar shall comply with an applicable official traffic-control device placed as provided by this subtitle unless the person is:

(1)   otherwise directed by a traffic or police officer; or
(2)   operating an authorized emergency vehicle and is sub­ject to exceptions under this subtitle.

(b)   A provision of this subtitle requiring an official traffic-control device may not be enforced against an alleged violator if at the time and place of the alleged violation the device is not in proper position and sufficiently legible to an ordinarily observant person. A provision of this subtitle that does not require an official traffic-control device is effective regardless of whether a device is in place.

An attempt to harmonize these statutes seems to be entirely glossed over by the appellate courts. The Holmquist court, despite this very argument being before them, failed to include any analysis of a driver in that defendant’s position. It is presumed that had Holmquist proceeded straight through the intersection out of the left-turn-only lane in compliance with his lack of signaling, the officer would have then stopped him for violation of 544.004. In most of the cases involving the interpretation of 545.104, there is some statutory construction analysis regarding whether the statute is clear and unambiguous or would lead to some form of an absurd result. In each case involving 545.104, Holmquist in particular, the courts conclude that 545.104 is not ambiguous and requiring a turn signal from a turn-only lane does not lead to an absurd result. In light of Mehaffey, it would appear that the argument set forth in Holmquist and Wehring has merit. But the current state of the law mandates that any and all drivers signal their intent to turn 100 feet prior to making that turn without regard to any form of traffic control device involved, and any stop made for that failure will be upheld.