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Ohio Supreme Court: Touching ‘Fog Line’ Doesn’t Justify Traffic Stop

A State Highway Patrol trooper stopped Ryan Turner on Old State Route 74 in Clermont County, Ohio. The roadway is two lane with traffic in both directions. The lanes are marked by yellow lines in the road’s center and white lines along the road’s edges. The trooper stopped Turner for failing to drive within the marked lanes in violation of R.C. 4511.33(A)(1). As a result of the stop, Turner was charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol (“DUI”).

At the hearing on Turner’s motion to suppress the DUI evidence, the trooper testified that he saw the two right-side tires of Turner’s vehicle touch – but not cross over – the fog line on the right-side edge of the roadway. The trial judge granted the motion to suppress, concluding that touching the fog line one time did not establish probable cause that a traffic violation occurred and didn’t justify the traffic stop.

A divided Twelfth District Court of Appeals reversed. The majority reasoned that when a vehicle is driving on a marked lane line, the driver “is not fully inside or ‘entirely within’ a single lane of traffic” as required by the plain language of R.C. 4511.33(A)(1). Reaching this decision, the majority declined to address the State’s alternative argument that the stop was lawful because the officer had made a reasonable mistake of the law. The Twelfth District certified that its judgment was in conflict with judgments from the First, Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh District Courts of Appeals. The Ohio Supreme Court granted certiorari to answer the following question: “Does an officer have reasonable and articulable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop of a motor vehicle for a marked lanes violation under R.C. 4511.33(A)(1) when the officer observes the tires of a vehicle driving on, but not across[,] a marked lane?”

The Court observed that R.C. 4511.33(A)(1) is unambiguous, and “[w]hen the language of a statute is plain and unambiguous and conveys a clear and definite meaning, there is no need for this [C]ourt to apply the rules of statutory interpretation.” Symmes Twp. Bd. of Trustees v. Smyth, 721 N.E.2d 1057 (Ohio 2000). When determining the plain meaning of a statute, the Court relies on definitions provided by the legislative body to the exclusion of all other definitions. Fox v. Std. Oil Co. of New Jersey, 294 U.S. 87 (1935). If a term is not defined within the statute, the Court uses the term’s plain and ordinary meaning. Brecksville v. Cook, 661 N.E.2d 706 (Ohio 1996). In ascertaining the plain meaning, the Court considers the statutory language at issue and the statutory scheme as a whole. Kmart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc., 486 U.S. 281 (1988). R.C. 4511.33(A)(1) states, in pertinent part, “[w]henever any roadway has been divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic ... [a] vehicle ... shall be driven, as nearly as is practicable, entirely within a single lane or line of traffic....”

The Court explained “R.C. 4511.33(A)(1) is part of an extensive statutory scheme regulating the operation of motor vehicles on Ohio roads. The meaning ... becomes unmistakable when R.C. 4511.33(A)(1) is considered in the context of the definitions of R.C. 4511.01 and its place within the statutory and regulatory scheme.”

R.C. 4511.09 gives the Ohio Department of Transportation (“ODOT”) authority to “adopt a manual for a uniform system of traffic control devices,” which ODOT did with the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (“MUTCD”). RC 4511.10 gives ODOT authority to “place and maintain traffic control devices, conforming to its manual and specifications, upon all state highways as are necessary to indicate and to carry out sections 4511.01 to 4511.78 and 4511.99.” A painted line is a traffic-control device. R.C. 4511.01(QQ). White longitudinal lines delineate either: “A. The separation of traffic flows in the same direction, or B. The right-hand edge of the roadway.” MUTCD § 3A.05.02. “A solid line discourages or prohibits crossing (depending on the specific application).” MUTCD § 3A.06(B). Ohioans are to follow the MUTCD’s instructions regarding traffic control devices unless otherwise directed by a police officer. R.C. 4511.12(A).

The Court concluded that there is no prohibition against touching or driving on the white longitudinal line that marks the right-hand edge of the roadway. The majority of jurisdictions across the nation have similar regulations and court precedent. Harvey Gee, “U Can’t Touch This” Fog Line: The Improper Use of A Fog Line Violation as a Pretext for Initiating an Unlawful Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure, 36 N.Ill.U.L.Rev. 1 (2015).

Based on the foregoing analysis, the Court answered the certified question in the negative, i.e., touching the fog line does not constitute reasonable and articulable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop.

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Related legal case

State v. Turner



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