WILLIAM H. STEELE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
This matter is before the Court on the defendants' motions to suppress. (Docs. 54, 57). The government has filed a response, (Doc. 60), and the defendants a reply. (Docs. 63, 66).
On December 15, 2015, defendant Garcia was driving a vehicle east on Interstate 10; defendant Bustamante was his passenger. The defendants were pulled over by Lieutenant Cayton for changing lanes without signaling, and a search of the stopped vehicle uncovered suspected narcotics. The defendants are charged with drug offenses, and Garcia is also charged with an immigration offense.
The defendants raise the following challenges: (1) the traffic stop was illegal; (2) the detention was illegally extended; (3) the defendants were seized/arrested without probable cause; and (4) the search was conducted without a warrant or valid consent.
As the defendants concede, (Doc. 55 at 3), "[a]s a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable [under the Fourth Amendment] where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred." Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996). "An officer's mistake of fact may provide the objective basis for reasonable suspicion or probable cause under the Fourth Amendment...." United States v. Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d 1271, 1276 (11th Cir.2003). However, "a mistake of law cannot provide reasonable suspicion or probable cause to justify a traffic stop." Id. at 1279. The defendants argue it is not illegal under Alabama law to change lanes without signaling, such that Lt. Cayton made a mistake of law that cannot justify the initial detention.
"A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety." Ala. Code § 32-5A-88(1). The defendants correctly note that nothing in this provision requires the use of a signal when changing lanes, (Doc. 55 at 4), but they have cited the wrong provision. As the government points out, (Doc. 60 at 5), the provision at issue is Section 32-5A-133.
"No person shall turn a vehicle or move right or left upon a roadway unless and until such movement can be made with reasonable safety nor without giving an
For this proposition, the defendants first rely on United States v. One 1993 Ford F150 Pickup, 148 F.Supp.2d 1258 (M.D.Ala.2001). Judge Thompson, without discussion, described Section 32-5A-133(a) as "requir[ing] a motorist to use his turn signal whenever moving his vehicle left or right `unless and until such movement can be made with reasonable safety.'" Id. at 1262.
As a matter of policy, the defendants' position may be defensible; there may or may not be a good reason to require motorists to signal a lane change when, for example, no one else is there to see it.
Section 32-5A-133(a) identifies two restrictions on turning or changing lanes. First, the movement must be capable of being made with reasonable safety. Second, the driver must give an appropriate signal. The two restrictions are introduced by "[n]o person shall" and connected with "nor." The word "nor" means "[a]nd not; or not; not either."
The Alabama Legislature did not create Section 32-5A-133 from whole cloth. Rather,
Unable to support their construction within the four corners of Section 32-5A-133(a), the defendants turn to subsection (b), which provides that "[a] signal of intention to turn right or left when required shall be given continuously during not less than the last 100 feet traveled by the vehicle before turning." Ala. Code § 32-5A-133(b) (emphasis added). The defendants rely on Bowers v. State, 221 Ga.App. 886, 473 S.E.2d 201 (1996), which, in interpreting Georgia's similar (but not identical) statute, concluded that the quoted phrase would be superfluous if a signal were always required. Id. at 203. The Bowers Court avoided this superfluity by construing the statute to require a signal only if the lane change cannot be accomplished with reasonable safety. Id.
The Bowers Court, like the defendants, failed to address the UVC from which the lane-changing statute was derived. Section 11-604(b) has included the phrase, "when required," since 1944. TLA 1979 at 198. The phrase was added when Section 11-604(a) still required a signal only when "other traffic may be affected by such movement," and it was never deleted by the Committee after the 1962 deletion of the qualifying language from Section 11-604(a). Because, in the post-1962 world, Section 11-604(a) always requires a signal when changing lanes, the "when required" language of Section 11-604(b) and Section 32-5A-133(b) is indeed a superfluous artifact of that earlier period.
The defendants complain that the cases cited by the government do not actually state that a signal is required even when it is safe to change lanes without one. (Doc. 63 at 3-4). Given the clarity of the result, the absence of such authority would not be significant but, in any event, several federal cases have in fact reached the same conclusion as the Court, albeit with less analysis.
Finally, the defendants argue that Section 32-5A-133, even if it requires a signal with each lane change, does not provide drivers with constitutionally sufficient notice as to what sort of signal is adequate and is thus unconstitutionally vague. The asserted vagueness arises because, while subsection (a) states that the "appropriate signal" will be described "hereinafter," subsection (b) addresses only the appropriate signal when turning, not when changing lanes, leaving motorists to guess at how much signal is needed. (Doc. 63 at 1-3).
Assuming without deciding that Section 32-5A-133 is impermissibly vague in this regard, the defendants do not explain how such vagueness could help them. They do not assert that Garcia gave a signal that Lt. Cayton deemed inadequate, and the government represents without contradiction that Garcia gave no signal at all. (Doc. 60 at 1).
For the reasons set forth above, the Court rules that it is a violation of Alabama law to change lanes without a signal, even if the lane change can be safely accomplished without such a signal. To the extent Lt. Cayton stopped the vehicle for changing lanes without a signal, he did not act under a mistake of law such as to eliminate probable cause justifying a traffic stop.
The defendants' motions to suppress are hereby set for an evidentiary hearing on
DONE and ORDERED this 14