Don’t Drive on the Wrong Side of the Road (Duh)

On January 18, 2019, the Second DCA issued a ground-breaking opinion that driving on the wrong side of the road is sufficient probable cause for a law enforcement officer to conduct a stop of a motor vehicle. The prior statement should be read as dripping with sarcasm. However, I will issue a tip of the hat to the trial attorney who somehow convinced the trial judge that a stop on that basis was illegal and that all evidence of a DUI should be tossed. Without his or her artful lawyering, we wouldn’t have this gem of scholarly legal work.

The Facts of State v. Boston

My assumption is that Mr. Boston was facing a felony DUI for having committed prior DUIs. Normally, a DUI is handled in county court and any appeal is to the circuit court. Since this appeal was to the Second District Court of Appeal, it’s a fairly safe bet that this wasn’t Mr. Boston’s first experience in litigation over a DUI.

With that said, here are the facts from State v. Boston: “On an early spring morning in Indian Rocks Beach, Deputy Matthew Schultheis saw Mr. Boston drive northbound through an intersection’s green light and continue into the southbound side of the road. Deputy Schultheis testified that Mr. Boston drove his vehicle on the wrong side of the road for about one-hundred feet before returning to the proper lane. There were no other vehicles on the road, nor were any pedestrians present. Deputy Schultheis stopped Mr. Boston and noticed signs of impairment, including slurred speech, an unsteady gait, and the odor of alcohol. The State charged Mr. Boston with felony driving under the influence.”

Because of the felony DUI, Mr. Boston was facing up to, at least, 5 years in Florida State Prison. A typical DUI is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in county jail if there was an accident and less jail time without an accident.

Trial Court’s Logic

The trial court did what any criminal defense lawyer would want a trial judge to do; it looked beyond whether a traffic law had been violated and looked to whether the driver’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances. The Court noted that Mr. Boston quickly corrected from being on the wrong side of the road, that no other traffic was effected, and that the traffic pattern in the area was confusing. As such, the officer shouldn’t have pulled over the driver.

Correction by the Appellate Court

Here’s an accurate statement of the law by the DCA regarding traffic stops in Florida (internal citations omitted):

“An examination of the validity of a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment . . . requires courts to determine whether the stop was reasonable. Thus, we must assess “whether the particular officer who initiated the traffic stop had an objectively reasonable basis for making the stop. In “applying the objective test, generally the only determination to be made is whether probable cause existed for the stop in question.

The constitutional validity of a traffic stop depends on purely objective criteria. The objective test asks only whether any probable cause for the stop existed, making the subjective knowledge, motivation, or intention of the individual officer involved wholly irrelevant. H

As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. The test is whether a police officer could have stopped the vehicle for a traffic violation. On at least one occasion, we have reversed a suppression order based on a driver’s failure to stop at a stop sign, regardless of the officer’s subjective suspicions.”

As such, the only relevant inquiry is whether the driver violated a traffic law. The DCA found that Mr. Boston drove on the wrong side of the road in contravention to Fla. Stat. 316.081. Therefore, the deputy had an objective basis and probable cause to conduct the traffic stop. No evidence obtained subsequent to the stop should have been suppressed.

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