A divided Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that crossing the "fog line" that separates a road from its shoulder, even if just for a couple seconds, is a marked-lane violation that a cop driving behind you can use as justification to pull you over.
The ruling comes in the case of Zachariah Larose, who was pulled over on Rte. 202 in Belchertown, initially for crossing the white line, once, for no more than three seconds, but who was then charged with OUI, after the police officer who'd pulled him over determined he was drunk at the time.
Larose's lawyer argued - and a Superior Court judge agreed - that because the line did not divide travel lanes and because Larose did not do anything else that would have been unsafe,, crossing it was not a marked-lane violation, so he shouldn't have been pulled over for it. And that means he should not have been charged with OUI, since that was a result of "the illegal seizure" involved in his being pulled over.
But in a precedent-setting ruling today, a majority on the state's highest court disagreed and said the traffic stop was legal and, thus, so is the OUI charge, which means that Larose now faces a trial on the charge.
We conclude that in this case, where the circumstances suggest that the defendant both failed to operate his motor vehicle entirely within his lane of travel and moved from his lane of travel without first ascertaining the safety of that movement, the defendant violated [the state marked-lanes law] and the ensuing traffic stop was reasonable.
At issue for the court was not just the marked lanes law, Chapter 89, section 4a, but the grammar used by legislators in crafting it:
When any way has been divided into lanes, the driver of a vehicle shall so drive that the vehicle shall be entirely within a single lane, and he shall not move from the lane in which he is driving until he has first ascertained if such movement can be made with safety.
Larose's attorney and the lower-court judge had argued that the way that paragraph is written only orders drivers to only avoid unsafe movements and was not a directive to stay in in their lanes for the most part. The majority disagreed:
[W]e read § 4A as commanding drivers to adhere to two distinct directives. First, drivers must operate entirely within a single lane. We take that to mean that drivers must maintain their lanes and avoid drifting or swerving into an adjoining lane or the shoulder. Second, drivers must not move from their respective travel lanes without first ascertaining whether it is safe to do so. That the Legislature intended for these two directives to operate independently is demonstrated by the Legislature's inclusion of two legal predicates directing the actions of drivers and conscious separation of those predicates by a comma and the conjunction "and."
The court continued:
First, the defendant's position has the undesirable effect of affording drivers unfettered discretion to ignore lane markings so long as they do not in fact make unsafe movements. Not only does this interpretation render the Legislature's command to drive entirely within a single lane meaningless, which we strive to avoid, see Ciani v. MacGrath, 481 Mass. 174, 179 (2019), but it also is entirely inconsistent with the clear, obligatory language of the statute that requires drivers to maintain their lanes regardless of whether a failure to do so would be in fact unsafe. It also would have the practical effect of requiring law enforcement officials to engage in a "no harm, no foul" type of analysis before initiating a stop and prohibit them from taking action until a driver's maneuvers are sufficiently "unsafe," which might risk the safety of the driver and others in the vicinity. Common sense dictates that this cannot be what the Legislature intended. ... We do not require such an analysis for other traffic violations and see no reason to require one here. ...
It is axiomatic that in order for traffic to flow safely, drivers and others sharing the road must be able to quickly and accurately anticipate one another's movements and respond accordingly. When individual drivers, purposefully or otherwise, fail to operate in conformity with applicable traffic rules, particularly one as fundamental as the directive to drive entirely within one lane, they pose a serious danger to themselves and others. To hold otherwise would be inconsistent with the Legislature's intent in enacting traffic laws generally, as well as G. L. c. 89 specifically, which was to promote the orderly and safe flow of traffic.
The justices continued:
This is not to say that drivers may never move from their respective lanes of travel, either entirely in order to change lanes or exit the roadway, or partially to avoid an obstacle or other hazard in their lane, but only to say that drivers must operate entirely within the bounds of one lane until and unless they decide to move from that lane and, in the event they choose to so move, that movement must be preceded by an assessment of its safety. We agree with the dissent that an overly narrow reading of § 4A could lead to absurd results. Nonetheless, we think that our interpretation avoids the absurdity with which the dissent is concerned and is consistent with related traffic laws that make room for necessary and purposeful lane deviations that can be made safely.
[T]he circumstances suggest that the defendant violated § 4A in two ways: he failed to operate his motor vehicle entirely within a single lane of travel; and he moved inadvertently from his lane of travel onto the road shoulder, the necessary implication being that he did not first ascertain that his movement onto the shoulder could be made safely. The defendant did not use his turn signal to indicate an intention to move out of the northbound travel lane; he did not reduce his speed in order to come to a complete stop on the road shoulder; he returned entirely to within the confines of the northbound travel lane after only a few seconds; and there was no visible hazard or other obstacle in the road that might explain his brief digression onto the shoulder. In these circumstances, the violation was clear and the ensuing stop was reasonable.
The justices noted the concern the ruling could lead to police using a minor infraction of momentarily passing onto a shoulder as a "pretext" for arrests on more serious charges, but said, in a footnote:
We note that the court is tasked with construing the marked lane statute as written and is obliged to stay in its lane. If the Legislature is concerned that too many drivers are being stopped for minor marked lane infractions, then it may amend § 4A or pass other corrective legislation.
Justice Barbara Lenk, joined by two other justices, though, dissented from the ruling, saying the law to her is pretty clear that a marked-lane violation involves improperly movement between travel lanes that cause a potentially dangerous condition, and that inadvertently going over a white line for a couple of seconds, without any additional evidence of any wrongdoing, is just over the line.
Under the court's literal interpretation of the statute, a driver commits a marked lanes violation every time he or she crosses a lane marker or fog line, even for a fraction of a second, when it otherwise is safe to do so. In the court's view, a driver violates G. L. c. 89, § 4A, if the driver moves over the fog line in an effort to dodge a pot hole or patch of ice, or to avoid another vehicle that drifts too close during perilous weather conditions. A driver also would commit a violation if, ever so slightly, he or she crosses the fog line in order to give more room to a large vehicle, a bicyclist, or a pedestrian, or to steer clear of an animal that has darted out onto the road. In fact, as best as I can tell, a driver would violate G. L. c. 89, § 4A, every time he or she crosses over a lane marker in order to exit a highway, to pull onto the shoulder of a highway to change drivers when tired, or to pull into a gasoline station, parking lot, or driveway.
Indeed, if the language of the statute is read this literally, any lane change would, for just an instant, violate the statute because the driver would not then be driving the vehicle "entirely within a single lane." Of course, this interpretation would be absurd, but its silliness only demonstrates that the language of the first clause cannot be construed in such a literal or narrow manner.