Virginia Traffic Law: What It Takes to Beat a Traffic Stop Revisited

As we addressed recently here, it sometimes seems like you get legally be pulled over for anything.  And once that happens, well you’d better hope that you weren’t doing anything illegal like driving drunk or holding illegal drugs or the like.

But, as we saw in Commonwealth v. Augustus, we sometimes see some nice much needed push back from our courts when it comes to the reasonable, articulable suspicion needed to justify a stop.  In the recent case of Commonwealth v. Dugas, Criminal No. 27833 (Loudoun County 2016), we got to see some more much needed push back, and a nice illustration of good lawyering at work

In this case, an officer noticed the defendant pull out of his apartment complex parking lot at an undefined high rate of speed around 3:00 a.m.  The defendant then proceeded to drive around town for about 2 ½ miles, including some areas that had seen a recent spate of larcenies.  The defendant obeyed all traffic laws save for his left tire touching the yellow line at two separate points in his drive.  He was pulled over immediately after his vehicle’s tire touched the yellow line a second time and thereafter charged with possession of marijuana.

At trial, the defendant’s counsel moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that there was no reasonable, articulable suspicion that the defendant has committed a crime.  In another nice moment of legal clarity, the court agreed.  The court held that the officer himself admitted that he had no idea what speed the defendant was driving when he first left the apartment complex and that his concerns about larcenies in the area were just hunches.  That left the court with nothing more than evidence that the vehicle’s left tire touched a yellow line twice over 2 ½ miles.  The court found that evidence insufficient to justify the stop, thus distinguishing these two isolated incidents over a decently long drive from the repeated weaving within one’s own lane over a mere half-mile that justified the traffic stop in Neal v. Commonwealth, 27 Va. App. 233 (1998).

So what’d make this case really pop for the judge?  First, defense counsel got the officer to admit that he had no actual idea how fast the defendant was driving as he left the apartment building.  Second, defense counsel got the officer to admit the testimony regarding larcenies in the area had no bearing on his decision to stop the driver.  Third, defense counsel seemingly did an excellent job of highlighting all of the excellent driving the defendant was doing besides the two mere touches of the yellow line.

Did the defendant driver make a proper left turn onto Sycolin Road?  Yes.  Did the defendant obey the traffic lights to make that left turn onto Sycolin Road?  Yes.  Did the defendant make a proper right turn onto Gateway Drive?  Did the defendant properly negotiate the cul-de-sac on Gateway Drive before heading back in the opposite direction on Gateway Drive?  Yes.  Did the defendant make a proper left turn onto Harrison Street?  Yes.  Did the defendant first properly stop at the stop sign before turning left onto Harrison Street?  Yes.  Did the defendant make a proper left turn onto Catoctin Circle?  Yes.  Did the defendant properly handle the flashing red light signal to make the left turn onto Catoctin Circle?  Yes.  Did the defendant weave in his lanes beyond the two yellow line touches?  No.  Did the defendant obey the 25 mph speed limit at all times?  Yes.  Did the defendant travel slower than normal at all?  No.  Did the defendant do anything abnormal in response to the officer activating his emergency lights?  No.  That’s how you go about framing your client’s bad evidence.  You hide it in all of the good evidence!