COA reversal affirms charges but judge calls out ‘arbitrary’ traffic stops

Incriminating evidence found when two separate drivers were stopped for failing to signal a turn in advance can be used against them, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled, though one judge is calling on the Legislature to review traffic laws that lead to “arbitrary” traffic stops.

Chief Judge Cale Bradford authored the reversal Thursday in the consolidated case of State of Indiana v. Emmanuel Torres, et al., 20A-CR-943.

The cases begin in January 2019, when Frankfort Police Officer Kaleb Thompson stopped Ramon Sanchez after observing Sanchez stop at a stop sign, activate his turn signal, then turn left. When he approached Sanchez, Thompson discovered Sanchez’s license was suspended, so the driver was charged with Class A misdemeanor driving while suspended and Class C misdemeanor operating a motor vehicle without ever receiving a license.

The following May, Thompson observed Emmanuel Torres make the same traffic infraction: coming to a stop, signaling and then turning left. The officer discovered that Torres had never received a driver’s license, so he was charged with Class A misdemeanor operating a vehicle without ever receiving a license.

Both men filed motions in August 2019 seeking to suppress evidence obtained following the stops of their vehicles. Specifically, they argued that they had not violated Indiana Code § 9-21-8-24 because their failure to signal before stopping did not affect any pedestrians or other motorists, and that the stops were pretextual.

The Clinton Superior Court determined in January that the defendants had complied with I.C. 9-21-8-24, but not with I.C. 9-21-8-25 because they failed to signal at least 200 feet before their turns. However, the court ultimately granted the motions to suppress because “in many circumstances within a normal city block it is impossible to comply” because some city blocks are less than 200 feet.

In reversing that decision, Bradford noted that neither Torres nor Sanchez filed appellate briefs. He then noted that the relevant statute has “no restrictions that it only applies in certain situations or roadways,” citing Datzek v. State, 838 N.E.2d 1149, 1155 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005).

“… (T)he trial court’s focus was misplaced,” Bradford wrote. “Whether or not compliance with Indiana Code Section 9-21-8-25 was possible for Sanchez and Torres under the circumstances, their failure to signal a turn until they reached a stop sign was certainly enough for Officer Thompson to establish a reasonable belief that Indiana Code Section 9-21-8-25 had been violated, and that is all that is required. The judge of the trial court is reversed, and we remand for further proceedings.”

Judge Paul Mathias authored a concurring opinion, though he noted that he concurred “only because I must – under the facts presented, the law, and the wording of the appealed order.”

“Yet it is quite clear that the trial judge was as frustrated as I am to be required to apply a statute that authorizes a traffic stop on any city street if the driver does not continuously signal for at least 200 feet before turning or changing lanes,” Mathias wrote.

Mathias noted that Torres and Emmanuel were not speeding, and both did signal their turns. The problem, however, was their failure to signal for 200 feet before turning.

“Anyone who has ever operated a motor vehicle observes multiple violations of this statute each and every day,” Mathias wrote. “… Whether cited as justification to stop a vehicle exiting a roundabout, State v. Davis, 143 N.E.3d 343, 346-47 (Ind. Ct. App. 2020), or a vehicle turning from a city street into a parking lot, State v. Rhodes, 950 N.E.2d 1261, 1264-65 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011), this precise statute appears to be employed often to make arbitrary traffic stops.

“… I respectfully request that our General Assembly review Section 9-21-8-25 and the traffic code in general to correct statutes where conforming conduct is often impossible. All Hoosiers will appreciate and benefit from a traffic code that reduces the opportunity for arbitrary enforcement.”

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