Crossing of Lane Lines Ruled PC for DUI Stop – State of South Carolina v. Vinson

Posted by the Charleston, SC DUI Attorneys at Anderson & Schuster, Attorneys at Law, LLC.  

In State v. Vinson, The South Carolina Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that a driver who touches the center line of a two lane highway with his vehicle is in violation of South Carolina traffic law and, therefore, probable cause exists to stop that driver. 

On Saturday, February 7, 2009, at approximately 3:00 a.m., Trooper Horne of the South Carolina Highway patrol was patrolling Highway 215 in Union County.  Highway 215 is a two-lane roadway with both the northbound and southbound lane having its own yellow lane line to indicate passing is prohibited. Trooper Horne observed Vinson's (the Defendant) vehicle drift "back and forth" between the double yellow lines that separated the opposing lanes of traffic.  He testified the front tire of the vehicle touched the double yellow line dividing the highway. Trooper Horne activated his dash camera and followed Vinson for approximately two-tenths of a mile. Trooper Horne testified that Vinson's vehicle never completely crossed into the opposing lane nor did it drift again into the center of the two yellow lines after Trooper Horne turned on his dash camera. At this point Trooper Horne suspected Vinson of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI).   

Trooper Horne then initiated a DUI traffic stop and investigation. He asked for the Vinson's license and registration and noticed Vinson's eyes were bloodshot and detected an odor of alcohol emanating from Vinson's vehicle. He asked Vinson if he had been drinking, and Vinson eventually replied that he had been. Trooper Horne then asked Vinson to perform two field sobriety tests.  Trooper Horne stated that Vinson failed the field sobriety tests and, therefore, was arrested for DUI. Vinson consented to a breathalyzer test at the police station, which registered a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.14.
The issue at the heart of this DUI case is whether the initial traffic stop was valid. A traffic stop must be based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause, or it is in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. A traffic stop based on probable cause that a traffic violation has occurred is deemed a valid stop.
South Carolina Code of Laws Section 56-5-1900 states in pertinent part that "whenever any roadway has been divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic the following rules…shall apply:… a vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from the lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety."
The Court held that the "nearly as practicable" language set forth in the statute means that a driver may only leave his lane "if it's impossible to stay in that lane because of an obstruction on the road or the road conditions or something of that nature." Trooper Horne testified Vinson's front tire crossed into the area between the double yellow lines that separated opposing lanes of traffic in a "no passing" zone. The Court found that this action, in and of itself, is a violation of the statute. Furthermore, Trooper Horne stated there were no other cars on the road during that time that would have prompted Vinson's decision to cross the center line.  Because it was practicable for Vinson to remain within his lane of traffic and he did not, the Court found Trooper Horne's stop of Vinson's vehicle and subsequent arrest for DUI was valid. 
This was a novel issue in South Carolina. In making its decision, the Court declined to follow decisions of many other states that have held such minor line crossings do not violate similarly worded traffic laws. We must wait to see if this case will be appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court. In the meantime, watch those lane lines  – just one minor touch of the line on your way home from work, on the way to the grocery store, or on the way to your kid's soccer game and you could be pulled over and given a traffic ticket.

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