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7th Circuit examines traffic 'turn' definition

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While Indiana statute doesn’t specifically define the word “turning” in the context of traffic law, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has held the failure to use a right-hand turn signal at an intersection amounts to a violation and justifies a traffic stop.

In United States v. Jason Smith, No. 11-2016, the appellate panel affirmed a ruling by U.S. Judge Robert Miller in the Northern District of Indiana.

The District Court considered the case of Jason Smith, who was pulled over in July 2010 by a marked police car with a narcotics canine inside after the officer saw Smith’s vehicle turning right at a South Bend intersection without using a signal. The officer had previously received a tip about that vehicle being driven by a man carrying a gun and illegal drugs, and the license plate matched the information that an informant had provided. When Smith didn’t use his turn signal, the officer initiated a traffic stop which led to a search revealing a gun, marijuana, crack cocaine and a digital scale.

Smith was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, possession of crack cocaine with intent to deliver and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug transaction. Smith filed a motion to suppress the items recovered in the search on grounds that the traffic stop was unlawful, specifically because he wasn’t turning at the intersection but “bearing right.” The District judge found the stop didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment because it was “enough of a turn that Indiana law requires a signal,” and a jury convicted Smith on all three counts. He received a sentence of 165 months imprisonment.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit noted that Indiana law doesn’t specifically define a “turn” but it relied on state court precedent to find that Smith was sufficiently “rotated” and a plain reading of Indiana’s statute equates that movement to a turn. As a result, the officer had probable cause to pull Smith over because he didn’t use a signal. The appellate court didn’t address the question of whether the vehicle’s window tinting provided independent grounds for justifying the stop, an aspect that had come up in the case.

The 7th Circuit also briefly addressed an issue Smith argued about when the traffic stop occurred. The charging information said July 13, 2010, and at trial the government noted that the events actually occurred on July 14. Smith argued the state constructively amended his indictment and he moved for acquittal, and the court denied that motion. The appellate court found the difference in date didn’t result in an impermissible constructive amendment based on its own caselaw.

 

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