Can a Georgia Police Officer Stop You Based on a Mistaken Understanding of the Law?
A traffic stop is often a precursor to a police officer investigating more serious charges, such as DUI or drug crimes. But an officer cannot simply invent a non-existent traffic violation. The officer must have a “reasonable suspicion” that the driver broke some traffic law before initiating a stop. And a judge can suppress any evidence obtained during an illegally initiated stop.
Georgia Court of Appeals: Touching the “Fog Line” Not a Traffic Violation
But what happens when an officer has an honest but mistaken belief that a traffic violation occurred? The Georgia Court of Appeals addressed this scenario in a recent case, Chapman v. State, involving a defendant convicted of trafficking in methamphetamine. According to court records, a sheriff’s deputy received an anonymous tip that the defendant in this case “would be traveling southbound on Highway 70 in either a white Ford F-150 or a silver White Mustang.” The tipster claimed the defendant was transporting methamphetamine to a local store.
The deputy subsequently observed a silver Ford Mustang headed southbound on Highway 70. The officer then saw the Mustang’s passenger-side tires touching the fog line–i.e., the white line on the right side of the road. Based on this observation, the deputy initiated a traffic stop, believing the driver had “failed to maintain his lane” as required by Georgia law.
Upon stopping, the driver–the defendant in this case–exited the vehicle and consented to a police “pat-down” search for weapons. An officer asked, “Do you have anything illegal on you?” The defendant replied, “yes,” and said he had methamphetamine. The officers then placed the defendant in handcuffs while they searched his car and recovered approximately 55 grams of methamphetamine.
Before the trial court, the defendant argued the initial traffic stop was illegal and that, even if it was legal, the officers lacked “reasonable suspicion” to immediately pursue a drug investigation during the stop. The trial judge rejected both arguments. A jury subsequently convicted the defendant of drug trafficking.
The Georgia Court of Appeals subsequently held that the traffic stop actually was illegal. The appellate court noted there was ambiguity in Georgia’s traffic laws with respect to whether the fog line was actually part of the “lane” of a roadway. The court determined that ultimately, a motorist does not fail to maintain their lane if they drive–but do not cross over–the fog line.
But that decision did not help the defendant here. The Court of Appeals went on to explain that since the deputy had a reasonable–albeit ultimately mistaken–belief that the defendant committed a traffic violation, the initial stop was still valid. In the future, however, Georgia law enforcement cannot use the touching of a fog line as justification for a traffic stop.
Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers Today
If you are facing drunk driving or drug charges arising from a traffic stop, it is important to remain silent and exercise your right to speak with a qualified Georgia Board certified DUI lawyer as soon as possible. Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers today to schedule a free consultation. We serve clients throughout Georgia including Atlanta, Dunwoody, Alpharetta, Cobb County, Fulton County, Gwinnett County, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs.