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The Failure of a Driver to Maintain the Lane is not Always a Legal Basis for a Traffic Stop in Florida

In Florida, many criminal arrests begin as traffic stops.  Most DUI’s begin this way along with other, more serious charges. As a result, a criminal defense lawyer should always look at the initial stop and how it occurred to see if there might be a search and seizure issue that could be the basis of a motion to suppress.  Police can normally stop a driver for violating a traffic law such as speeding or running a red light. However, it is not uncommon for the police to stop a driver for more vague traffic infractions like the failure to maintain the lane, particularly in driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI) cases.

In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was pulled over for failure to maintain her lane on two occasions. The police officer ultimately searched the vehicle and found marijuana inside. The defendant was arrested for possession of marijuana. The criminal defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the marijuana based on the argument that the police officer did not have a legal basis to pull the defendant over.

The court agreed with the criminal defense lawyer. At the motion to suppress hearing, the police officer testified that the defendant did not impact any other vehicles, pedestrians or anyone else when she veered out of her lane two times. The relevant Florida statute says that when a roadway has been divided into two or more marked lanes, the driver should drive entirely within a single lane as nearly as practicable and shall not move from that lane unless it is clear such movement can be made safely. The courts in Florida do not find that a driver has violated this statute unless there was evidence that the driver or any other person was endangered. Therefore, if a driver crosses over a solid white or yellow line periodically but no other driver or person was impacted, it would not likely be a violation that would warrant a traffic stop. The police must establish some sort of safety concern caused by the driver crossing the solid line.

There is one other basis that would allow for a traffic stop even where the vehicle leaves its lane but creates no apparent danger to anyone. If the police officer has reasonable suspicion to believe, based on specific facts, that the driver is committing a crime, then a traffic stop would likely be permitted. The obvious crime would be DUI. However, a driver crossing the line once or twice with nothing more would not be a sufficient basis to believe the driver was DUI. People cross over solid lines while driving all of the time for various reasons. If the police officer had a tip from someone at a bar who saw the driver leave while impaired or had some other specific evidence of criminal activity, that could be enough for a valid traffic stop upon seeing the driver leave the lane of travel. Likewise, if the driver was consistently driving in and out of the lane, that could be sufficient as well. However, merely driving out of the lane of travel a couple of times over some distance would not be enough for a traffic stop. In this case, the traffic stop was found to be unlawful, and the evidence of the marijuana was thrown out.