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Judges interpret left turn traffic statute

October 24, 2011

Turning left from an intersection doesn’t mean you must drive into the lane closest to the center line, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

The state’s intermediate appellate court interpreted Indiana Code 9-21-8-21 that was crafted two decades ago, finding that it isn’t specific about which lane right of the center line a person must turn into when turning left from an intersection.

That ruling came in Ken Gunn v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-1102-CR-82.

An Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer observed Ken Gunn making a left turn in June 2010 onto a four-lane road with two lanes in each direction. In making that turn and entering the southbound lanes, Gunn didn’t turn into the lane closest to the center line but instead swung out into the other lane. Believing that turning left into a lane other than the one closest to the center line was a traffic infraction, the officer initiated a traffic stop.

The officer asked Gunn for his driver’s license and routinely asked if any guns were in the car, to which Gunn responded that he had one in a holster on his right hip and that he had a permit. The officer found the permit expired three weeks earlier and wasn’t renewed, and so he arrested the driver. The state charged Gunn with Class A misdemeanor carrying a handgun without a license. Gunn filed a motion to suppress the gun on grounds it was obtained as the result of an illegal traffic stop, but the Marion Superior Court denied that motion after a hearing.

On appeal, Gunn argued that any evidence obtained at the time should be suppressed because the traffic stop violated his Fourth Amendment and state constitutional rights. Specifically, Gunn contended the officer’s justification for the stop was invalid.

The appellate judges analyzed IC 9-21-8-21, which says a person making an intersection turn must “make the left turn so as to leave the intersection to the right of the center line of the roadway being entered.”

“The statute does not specify which lane the driver must enter if there is more than one lane for traffic in that direction,” Senior Judge Patrick Sullivan wrote. “Rather, the only requirement is that the driver must enter a lane to the right of the center line.”

Despite the state’s argument that the turn must be made into the lane closest to the center line, the appellate judges disagreed with that reading of the statute’s clear language. If the Legislature had intended that, they could have specified as they did in a subsection focusing on right-hand turns. Even if the state’s reading would be more conducive to traffic safety, the court found no reason to require that based on the law.

The appellate court declined an invitation to hold that this was a situation where an officer’s good faith belief, later to be found incorrect, may be objectively reasonable at the time of the assessment and sufficient to justify an investigatory stop.

As a result, the appellate panel reversed the judgment, finding the trial court erred in denying Gunn’s motion to suppress the evidence.
 

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