State v. Cortez (Tex. Crim. App. 2018)
Jose Cortez was stopped because a Texas State Trooper allegedly observed him driving on an “improved shoulder” in violation of Texas Transportation Code § 545.058. The officer testified that Cortez touched the white “fog” line of the road and crossed it twice. During the ensuing stop, the trooper searched Cortez’s vehicle and found drugs. Cortez moved to suppress the stop (and the search) arguing that the officer lacked probable cause to initiate the stop.
What is Driving on the Improved Shoulder?
The Texas Transportation Code also defines “improved shoulder” as a “paved shoulder” with the “shoulder” being the “portion of the highway that is:
- adjacent to the roadway;
- designed or ordinarily used for parking;
- distinguished from the roadway by different design, construction, or marking; and
- not intended for normal vehicular travel.”
The Texas Transportation Code §545.058 prohibits drivers from driving on the shoulder unless it is necessary and done safely, “but only:
- to stop, stand, or park;
- to accelerate before entering the main traveled lane of traffic;
- to decelerate before making a right turn;
- to pass another vehicle that is slowing or stopped on the main traveled portion of the highway, disabled, or preparing to make a left turn;
- to allow another vehicle traveling faster to pass;
- as permitted or required by an official traffic-control device; or
- to avoid a collision.”
Court Suppressed the Traffic Stop Because Driving on the Shoulder Did Not Violate Any Laws
In this case, the trial court determined, after careful review of dashcam footage and officer testimony, that Cortez did not appear to touch the fog line, and that even if he did, that was not a violation of the law. The courts also reasoned that if Cortez did cross the line, he was doing so to let the officer pass and to exit the highway, both reasons justified by the statute. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s suppression of the stop. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed and affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
What Does This Mean for Texas Drivers?
First, it is not illegal to touch the white line of the shoulder under Texas Transportation Code § 545.058. If you are pulled over for this, the courts have determined this is not a violation of the law and does not provide a reasonable basis for an officer to pull you over and search your vehicle.
Second, if you do cross the white line, that is not necessarily a violation. If one of the acceptable reasons above is present, then it is permissible to cross the shoulder line and the police will not have a reasonable basis for stopping you and should not stop you or search your vehicle.
Overall, you should pay close attention when you are driving. But the courts have acknowledged that it is nearly impossible to drive in a perfectly straight line. The police do not automatically have a reasonable basis to stop you if you cross the white line, and they have NO basis for stopping you if you merely touch it. However, as we have always said, if you are stopped, be polite, be courteous, and do not consent to any searches.
NOTE: Presiding Judge Keller dissented in this case and would hold that driving on the white fog line does constitute driving on the improved shoulder in violation of the transportation code.