The legal question before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”) in a November 2, 2022 decision, State v. Hardin, was straightforward and constitutionally significant:
“Does a driver commit a traffic offense if the car’s right-rear tire briefly but safely touches and drives over the dividing line between the center and right lane of traffic?”
Shortly after 1:00 a.m. on April 23, 2017, Corpus Christie police officer David Alfaro observed a truck and a U-Haul trailer driven by Shelia Jo Hardin parked at a local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. The trailer attracted Alfaro’s attention because he had received a “Be on the Lookout” (BOLO) alert for a U-Haul trailer suspected of being connected to several local burglaries. The fast-food restaurant was closed at the time.
At the time Officer Alfaro received the BOLO alert:
- He did not have any evidence connecting the burglaries to the U-Haul;
- He did not have the name or reliability of the source tying a U-Haul to the burglaries; or
- He had no other information that connected Hardin’s vehicle to the burglaries, such as license plate number or vehicle description.
Nonetheless, officer Alfaro followed Hardin’s truck/U-Haul trailer as it pulled out of the KFC parking lot. Hardin drove the truck into the middle lane of a three-lane I-37 highway, after which the officer observed the left rear tire of the truck straddle the divider lane as it came out of a curve. Hardin then slowly moved back into the proper lane after coming out of the curve. She was not driving erratically or speeding, and there was no other traffic in the area. The truck’s left rear tire straddled the divider lane for only a few seconds.
Officer Alfaro believed this two-second observation gave him “reasonable suspicion” to initiate a “traffic stop” for “failure to maintain a single lane of travel” in violation of the Texas Transportation Code § 545.060.
Based upon evidence officer Alfaro seized during a search of Hardin’s vehicle, the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office charged Hardin with fraudulent possession of identifying information and forgery of a government instrument.
Before trial, Hardin’s defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the search because officer Alfaro lacked “reasonable suspicion” to initiate the traffic stop.
In layperson’s terms, Officer Alfaro used the traffic stop as a pretext to stop Hardin’s vehicle without reasonable suspicion to connect it to the BOLO U-Haul’s criminal activity.
The trial judge conducted an evidentiary hearing on the defense’s suppression motion, during which he viewed Officer Alfaro’s dash cam video. That video showed that Alfaro triggered his patrol lights just as Hardin moved her truck back into the center lane and that she immediately pulled over on the side of the highway and parked her vehicle.
Against this factual backdrop, the trial judge concluded that the brief straddling of the divider lane did not give officer Alfaro “reasonable suspicion” to initiate a traffic stop. Therefore, the ensuing search was unlawful under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The State appealed the trial judge’s ruling to the Thirteenth District Court of Appeals. On August 1, 2019, the appeals court issued an unpublished 8-page memorandum opinion upholding the trial judge’s decision to grant Hardin’s motion to suppress. The Court concluded:
“Here, after viewing the dash-cam video and hearing Officer Alfaro’s testimony, the trial court found that Officer Alfaro observed the tires of Hardin’s vehicle cross minimally into an adjacent lane after rounding a curve in the road. The trial court further found that Hardin’s actions were not unsafe, a finding the State does not challenge on appeal and which is supported by the record. Therefore, in accordance with this Court’s precedent, we conclude that Officer Alfaro did not have reasonable suspicion to stop Hardin for violating § 545.060 of the transportation code …”
The State sought, and secured, discretionary review before the CCA. The appeals court took the Hardin case as an opportunity to educate both prosecutors and law enforcement about what § 545.060 encompasses and how it should be interpreted.
The statute has two subsections: 1) it requires a motorist to drive “as nearly as practical” within a single lane; and 2) a motorist cannot move from lane to lane unless such a “movement can be made safely.”
Based on a fair and impartial interpretation of the statute, Shelia Jo Hardin, at no point, as officer Alfaro’s dash cam clearly showed, violate §545.060. The CCA made this abundantly clear in its decision:
“A plain reading of the statute reveals that a motorist does not commit an offense any time a tire touches or crosses a clearly marked lane. It is only when the failure to stay ‘as nearly as practical’ entirely with a single lane becomes unsafe that a motorist violates the statute. Subsection (a)(1) does not require a motorist to stay entirely within a single lane; it only requires that a motorist remain entirely within a single marked lane ‘as nearly as practical.’ In other words, a motorist is not actually required to maintain a single marked lane under subsection (a)(1). He or she must ‘almost, but not quite’ stay within the lane. This section is designed to protect motorists from being accused of a crime due to an inability to stay entirely within a single marked lane at all times.
“Subsection (a)(2), on the other hand, prohibits any movement from the lane unless that movement can be made safely. And while the phrase ‘move from the lane’ can include a complete lane change, the scope of the statute is not textually limited to situations in which the driver moves ‘entirely’ from the lane because the legislature did not modify the word ‘move’ with the word ‘entirely.’ Considered in connection with subsection (a)(1), any unsafe weaving out of the lane violates the statute, but weaving out of the lane without creating a safety risk does not violate the statute because incidental weaving is still staying ‘as nearly as practical’ entirely within the single lane.”
Given this fundamental interpretation of the traffic statute, a reasonable conclusion can be drawn that Officer Alfaro stopped Ms. Hardin purely as a pretext, with no legal basis. That’s an illegal traffic stop; all evidence obtained afterward must be suppressed. Case closed. Follow the law next time.