The Tennessee Supreme Court will have the opportunity to create a bright line test for when law enforcement may stop a motorist for crossing that line on the road. Two cases involving drivers who were stopped and charged with a DUI involve a determination of when officers may initiate a traffic stop.
Here’s the problem. There are statutes in Tennessee that indicate crossing the fog line on the edge of a road or the centerline constitutes a traffic violation. The state of Tennessee is arguing that a single, momentary incident of a motorist’s wheel crossing either of those lines is sufficient grounds for a traffic stop.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said law enforcement must have at least “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has occurred or is likely to occur in order to “seize” a person and stop them along the road.
The defendants in these cases argue that a single incident of a wheel passing over the lines is insufficient to provide the “reasonable suspicion” to authorize a stop. Remember, this is not a driver weaving all over the road who is obviously intoxicated. This is a single incident.
The danger is that by allowing such a trivial violation to become grounds for a traffic stop, law enforcement is granted unfettered discretion in determining whom they stop, as they lack resources to stop everyone who commits these minor driving mistakes.
And law enforcement has many opportunities to exercise this discretion. For instance, during the first half of this year in Nashville, police made more than 200,000 traffic stops, and only 20 percent produced tickets.
But in those 80 percent where they only give a warning, the officer is checking your driving record and has the opportunity to examine your condition and the visible contents of your car. A strict interpretation of the Fourth Amendment would require the police to obtain a search warrant prior to such examination.
If the Tennessee Supreme Court goes along with the state’s arguments, it will allow a police officer, on the street, the authority to stop virtually anyone. This is more discretion than a judge is permitted when deciding to approve a search warrant. A judge approving a search warrant needs a showing of probable cause, or no warrant issues.
Tennessean.com, “Tennessee Supreme Court considers lines on traffic stops,” Stacey Barchenger, September 8, 2015